Tuesday, 4 January 2011


I didn?t get much time off over new year. But that?s OK, it was
interesting stuff. Saturday and Sunday were both days off for the
crew and there was a big party on hogmanay, but issues came up I had
to deal with.
The shower water developed a subtle metallic or ammonia kind of smell,
and so I spent hogmanay running analyses on it. Because the base is
built on snow and ice you might think we would be rich in water, but
unfortunately it?s not the case. There is a huge energy cost in just
taking ice at zero degrees and melting it to water at zero degrees,
and we need to raise it?s temperature from -25 (or -80 in winter) to
plus 20, as well as melting it. And the fuel to do that has to be
dragged for 1000km from Dumond D?Urville by traverse. So water is
seriously expensive here.
We conserve by being careful ? and believe me for the first time in my
life I am taking energy conservation genuinely seriously. There?s
nothing like the prospect of 9 months of total isolation to make you
think you have to look after the fuel store. Short showers, taps off,
it?s a ritual.
And we conserve by recycling. Step in the European Space Agency yet
again. Of course the space station has to recycle water and so will a
mission to Mars. Here we have the luxury of not having to recycle all
water, but just that of showers, washing machines, cooking and
washing. So ESA has provided a ?grey water treatment unit.? It
consists of a UV irradiation system, a nanofiltration system, and a
reverse osmosis method that together cleans the water to go back into
use for washing and showering, etc. The water is drinkable, but we
don?t. We melt water for drinking and cooking. Nice to have a dual
supply, just in case.
Someone has to check periodically that the grey water unit is running
properly, by analysing the water it produces for all the sorts of
things the system is designed to extract. Whether because it?s
originally an ESA design, or perhaps because they just want someone
they know will be handy with a Gilsen and a testing kit, but anyway,
that person is me. So once a week I go down to the grey water
treatment unit and climb and twist and balance and push through a
tangle of tubing, pipes, tanks and cylinders to get samples from
various steps of the process. And then I spend a couple of hours in
the lab pipetting samples in to tubes for photospectrometry and various
other tests.
The ammonia was at the upper limit of acceptable, and everything else
checked out normally. We test for organisms by measuring ATP and that
was much less than the drinking water has. So the smell is just a bit
of higher than normal ammonia levels, but still very safe.
And so Sunday I thought, it?s our official day off, I can relax,
surely. Until word gets to me that there is a mild outbreak of
diarrhoea on the base. And so I spent my morning in meetings with the
base doctor, the station leader, senior crew and the chef, deciding
what to do about it. One thing was for sure, it wasn?t serious.
Everyone suffering was still up and about.
But was it food, or was it viral? The base doctor thought food, I
insisted we couldn?t rule out viral. We couldn?t know yet and so we
had to decide to put in place measures to address both possibilities.
Cue the usual stern lectures about hand washing, we had to remove all
shared food like the cheeseboards and bread, a water melting unit we
had isolated for the festivities so we could use it as an outdoor spa
had to be closed. I can?t tell you how much I felt like scrooge
insisting on all these things, but well, it?s what you?ve got to do.
(And as the outbreak continued to develop in new people day after day,
and then sprang up in DDU a few days later I felt a bit vindicated.)
But, I really don?t mind the time I?m putting in. In fact I?m loving
the variety of the job, and that you work when you have to and you
can?t predict what?s coming next. But there?s something else too. If
you websearch up some images of Concordia base you?ll see that from
one of the towers the French, Italian and EU flags fly. Well, because
I?m here for the year they?ve let me put up a Scottish flag too. I
brought one that, it turns out is the same size as the Italian and
French, and it just represents me! I?m so proud of this, and it gives
me a lot to live up to. Every time I see it or think about it, it?s a
spur to work more, harder, better.
So I worked through the new year proud to be a member of this team,
public health advisor, water engineer, doctor, playing my part to
keep this base a safe place. Of course, there might have been a
couple of shandies along the way too, it?s not all work y?know...
Happy new year folks, best wishes to you all.

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