Palmer Station is one of three stations in Antarctica operated by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and is located on the Western Antarctic Peninsula. The other two stations run by NSF are South Pole and McMurdo, which you can see in the US Antarctic Programs website, NSF contracts out to Raytheon Polar Services to staff these stations, and Raytheon in turn contracts out to individuals or others such as a food services company called NANA for support staff.

    The people here, as Ruth has already attested to, are extremely talented folk with a myriad of personal histories. Most interesting to me is that most of them a polar people. For many of them this summer season has been one in many seasons that they have spent either here, at McMurdo or at the South Pole. Some people also have worked in Greenland, Alaska, Midway, Palmira and the list of remote field stations and exotic places keeps going. In any case when you sit down with people here there is no lack of storytelling.

   But, who runs this place anyway? Or more specifically how is it that we are able to stay alive on this harsh continent? To live out here we primarily need to stay warm. Then we need water and food, a place to sleep and next a place to work. Palmer Station is comprised of two main buildings, GWR and Bio. GWR (short for “Garage, Warehouse, and Recreation” building) contains the generators, stock shop, store, gym, bar, lounge and housing inside of it. Bio (short for “Biological laboratory building”) contains housing, the galley, offices, and all the labs and aquarium that we work in.

   Next to the dock there is a small building which houses the dive locker and boat house, while across the way there are mill vans (small versions of containers you might see being transported on a semi-truck) containing everything from consumable glass ware, chemicals, volatiles, the waste from the station, refrigerators and more. There are more mill vans up from GWR, as well as the Terra Lab building where there is a full time research assistant working year round on atmospheric and other physical science projects.

   The station is powered by two 6-cylinder 3406B Diesel CAT (Caterpillar) generators located on the first floor of the GWR building. These are used in sequence, so one generator is run for five hundred hours at a time and then the second is fired up while general maintenance such as an oil change is done with the first. There is a third emergency generator on the first floor of the Bio building which is smaller, a 6-cylinder 100kW CAT 333 diesel generator, and never used except to be tested in case it is needed.

   The main generators generally consume about 1,800 gallons a week, give or take. The coolant from the generators goes through a heat exchange and provides the heat for housing and workshops in GWR as well as the hot water. In Bio, boilers heat the building and the water. The man in charge of the power plant is Dave Ensworth, or in other words, kind-of a “god” since he provides us with heat, power, and as you will see, water.

   Dave is the power plant mechanic and is in charge of everything that requires fuel. This means that he fixes the 6-wheeler All Terrain Vehicles that are used for light transport around the station, the Skytracks, which are a cross between a small crane and a huge fork-lift and used for heavy transport around station, and sometimes the boat engines. He also is in charge of the desalinization process. Water is pumped up to GWR from the pump house which is located next to the Bio building, and ends up in a tank which the reverse osmosis unit draws from. Fresh water is then pumped from here to the Bio building where it is exposed to UV light to kill harmful material that may be in the water. This water is then distributed by the Facilities Engineering Maintenance and Construction department, which is in charge of everything that doesn’t run on fuel.

   Facilities Engineering Maintenance and Construction (FEMC) is an aptly named department who keeps the station running. Zenobia (Zee) Evans, the coordinator for FEMC, reinforces that her group’s job is to support science. In fact they support the whole station, from running the fire system, refrigeration, sewage, carpentry, fresh water and much more. There are five people working for this department on station, a supervisor, an electrician, a carpenter, a maintenance specialist, and then someone who does general support rotating through all the disciplines of FEMC.

   The pump house is operated by the maintenance specialist who hands the water off to Dave to put through reverse osmosis, then receives it back as fresh water and redistributes it among the buildings. He takes care of the machinery in the lab such as the autoclave as well as the sewage and the refrigerators in the Galley. He’s also a very skilled artist.

   The electrician, John Evans, is in charge of the fire system, the electricity, and generally supports everyone including Dave and the maintenance specialist. The carpenter works on everything from fixing windows to carving dulcimers (on his own time) and building the recreational shack out in the back yard for the station to enjoy. Needless to say the support man, Kyle Hoppe, is a jack of all trades, which applies to him musically as well.  And Zee organized the art show in which she showed many of her black and white photographs all taken and developed here on station.

   Most of our waste is solid and taken care of by waste specialists, but sewage is a different story. There is no way to deal with this easily as remote as we are, so sewage is put through a masticator and continually pumped to the dock where seabirds and other creatures can often be seen enjoying the buffet.

   The waste specialists George Ryan and Nandi Kovats deal with everything else. Nandi is actually a recycle technician but as opposed to McMurdo and the South Pole where 70% of waste is recycled, we aren’t able to recycle. Solid and hazard waste is collected and compacted for shipment off the continent once every two years. This job involves dealing with federal and international regulations on chemicals and hazardous materials, inventory of years of waste and spill response. It is much more complicated than you would expect from first glance, there is a lot of training needed before deployment to Antarctica. But fortunately, although we generate a lot of chemical waste in our lab, hazardous wastes and spills are few and far between here. In other stations like McMurdo where there is bigger machinery and operations, spills are more common and make up a bigger part of the job.

   This brings me to the nature of the station and the people who work here. Because everyone has worked in various places and the small size of Palmer Station, is there is a strong sense of cooperation and community here. It doesn’t take a lot of time to do the waste job, and much of Nandi’s time is spent helping clean the station and assisting people with their odd jobs. The same goes for everyone else.

   We all clean the station together, clean up after meals together and station workers have many opportunities to go out with science groups and assist with their work. Zee says that the best thing about working in Palmer as opposed to other places is the close contact with nature and the frequency at which they get to be part of the science. They are the support staff, but in other stations they rarely have the opportunities that they find here. 

   So who runs this station? We all do, we support each other and do what is needed to make this station work. As part of the only science group here right now I’m a bit overwhelmed by the volume of support we get from everyone, a bit humbled by it in fact. This is a truly unique place and well oiled machine, and I am making a short video of it to illustrate some of the things I’ve talked about in this blog. You can see the video on our YouTube channel if you click on the small link below the photos to the right.