The Greening of McMurdo Station, Antarctica

During the 1955-56 Antarctic summer season in preparation for the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), the U. S. established McMurdo Air Facility on Ross Island in the vicinity of Hut Point, the site of the winter quarters of Scott’s “Discovery” Expedition (1901-04.) First built as a staging point for flights supporting the construction of South Pole Station, McMurdo Station became the main U. S. base on the continent a couple of years later when Little America shut down. The site is uniquely situated on a natural harbor in the lee of Hut Point, to which ice breakers can cut a path through seasonal ice for cargo and tanker ships to resupply the station. The seasonal ice provides a smooth surface for aircraft landings early in the season, but the location of the base a few miles north of the permanent ice of the Ross Ice Shelf also allows the U. S. Antarctic Program (USAP) to maintain a second airstrip that serves when the seasonal ice has broken up. Built on a series of terraces bulldozed from the surrounding volcanic hillsides by Navy Seabees, McMurdo Station began as a hodge-podge of temporary buildings designed to provide the basics for survival and the conduct of science. By 1970-71, my first Antarctic season, a number of more permanent structures had been added, including the Eklund Biological Center and two structures for housing science personnel, the Hotel California and the Mammoth Mountain Inn. Most of the enlisted men and support staff still slept in Jamesways, modular, canvas-covered, quonset-style structures that were surplus from the Korean War. Although the environment was not nonexistent in the consciousness of USAP, expediency was the order of the day when it came to waste management. Up behind the main part of town was a “boneyard” of broken-down, heavy equipment, front loaders, bulldozers, graders, trucks, and transport vehicles, both tracked and wheeled varieties. Beyond repair (or not?), these behemoths were annually towed out onto the seasonal ice and arranged in a cluster. By the end of the season, the ice was gone and so were the vehicles, gone to the bottom of McMurdo Sound. Throughout the 1970’s the McMurdo dump was right off the front of the station. All manner of station refuse ended up there, from solid waste including wood and metal, to garbage. During this period, the population of skuas burgeoned, fattened by the rich supply of nutrients that the dump provided. At the same time, the population of Adelie penguins in the rookery at Cape Royds diminished as more eggs and chicks fell prey to the increased number of marauding gulls. Skuas were not the only birds to pick the McMurdo dump in those days. Kiwis from New Zealand’s Scott Base would come over the hill in the wee hours and glean plywood, sheet metal, pipes, and the like for use at their station. About once a week the dump was incinerated, producing waves of thick smoke that would waft through town if the wind was coming from the west. Raw sewerage poured from an elevated pipe at the end of the dump directly into Winter Quarters Bay. The whole affair was pretty rude.

With Observation Hill rising inthe background, the McMurdo dump burns at the foot of the station. The sewer pipe follows the road down to the dump.

The McMurdo dump reduced to blackened metal following incineration.

Skuas congregate in the McMurdo dump where the pickins were easy.

Raw sewage pours from the end of the sewer pipe into Winter Quarters Bay.

In October of 1978 President Carter signed into law the Antarctic Conservation Act of 1978, which set guidelines for wildlife conservation, specially-protected areas, and pollution control. Pollution control measures were not instituted until 1984, when the U. S. Antarctic Program issued directive no. 84-1, setting forth guidelines for waste disposal which included incineration. During this period the McMurdo dump was moved from the waterfront to a volcanic crater up behind the station where it was out of sight. During the 1986-87 summer season, Greenpeace established a small base at Camp Evans, several hundred yards down the beach from Scott’s (1910-12) “Terra Nova” hut, which they occupied continuously until 1991. The primary aim was to gain a seat at the table during negotiations for continuation of the Antarctic Treaty after its 30-year term ended in 1991, and to advocate that all of Antarctica be turned into a “World Park.” However, during the first season, members of Greenpeace staged a series of protests at McMurdo Station, highlighting waste disposal practices and causing considerable tension on the base. During the same summer season, an accident claimed the lives of two men who had strayed from a flagged route to Castle Rock and fallen into a crevasse. In response, USAP established a Safety Review Panel to review safety measures associated with the Antarctic program. Aside from numerous safety measures that they called for in their 1988 report, the panel also recommended an environmental clean-up of McMurdo Station, and studies to determine better ways of treating, disposing of, and retrograding waste. The same year, the Office of Polar Programs issued an implementation plan and schedule for completing the recommended actions. During the 1989-90 summer season, station personnel began separating plastic, metal, and burnable wastes. I was in McMurdo that year and remember how novel and proper the practice seemed. The clean-up effort that season resulted in the removal by the supply ship of more than 900 tons of waste from McMurdo, including recyclable material, old rolling stock, scrap metal, radioactive and hazardous waste, and explosives. By 1991-92, open burning at the dump was discontinued, and a 160-foot long wastewater outfall pipe connected to a domestic sewage macerator was submerged to a depth of 60 feet in Winter Quarters Bay. The following season incineration in a temporary incinerator was halted permanently. Since that time all burnable waste has been retrograded back to the States. When I returned to McMurdo in 2000-01, a full scale recycling operation was set up in the crater where the dump had been. Recycling bins for specific types of refuse were scattered all over the base in living spaces and in work spaces. Everyone participated in distributing their trash into the appropriate bins. The green transformation of McMurdo was complete.

Recycling bins are lined up adjacent to the sicence cargo yard, 2010-11. From left to right the bins are for Cardboard, Wood, Glass, Clothing, Aluminum cans, Paper towels, Plastic, Food waste, Mixed paper, and Hazaradous waste.

A small assortment of recycling cans in one of the sleeping area. Photo by Danny Foley.

The recycling facility at McMurdo (indicated by the green arrow) sits in an old volcanic crater above storage yards at the upper end of McMurdo Station.

Windmills in The Gap between McMurdo Station and Scott Base are a recent addition to the power supply for the stations.

Gallery – Mount Discovery

Mount Discovery, the graceful volcano to the southwest of McMurdo Sound, is a landmark of many moods.