Monday, 24 December 2007

On turdicles and rocket bogs

Its a dark secret never mentioned in their diaries, and never discussed at dinner tables: Polar explorers poo in the snow.

Scott did it - every few miles, a little pile of digested pemmican droppings on the way to the pole, little piles of digested donkey on the way back. For Amundsen, digested husky. Poor old Thybbles and Røver; what a way to go.

Even today, life 'in the field' for an polar scientist is little different. When the call of nature becomes too strident, one leaves the tent and grabs one's shovel, and makes jolly sure one is not pooing in the same location that one digs one's snow for water. Life is very simple.

At the remote little summer logistics station at Sky Blue where I spent a few days last year, things were a smidgeon more sophisticated. A hundred yards from the main camp, a solitary pyramid tent stood. Inside was a rough wooden plank suspended above..... the Turdicle. I'd rather not go into further details if you don't mind.

Here at Halley we mostly have proper flushing loos. Yet the technology isn't all that more evolved here, for the pipes simply lead outside, down into a tunnel, and then the pipes end at a deep, deep hole of horrors. One day, perhaps, this piece of ice will break free from the Antarctic continent, and twenty years of accumulated crap will dissolve into the Antarctic Ocean. For now though, its all safely frozen in the ice.

I say we mostly have flushing loos. The main accomodation platforms do, and the Science platforms used to as well. Only, as they were used less frequently, they had a tendency to freeze up. Now, they're been replaced with Rocket Bogs. The Rocket Bog concept is very simple. Imagine pooing in a kettle, then sellotaping the on-switch down so that all the liquid boils off and the remains catch fire, so that all you are left with is a little pile of ash. Very simple: no water pipe coming in, no sewage pipe going out. All you need is a chimney, and an electricity supply. With a big, big fuse. Oh, and of course a big diesel generator, a tonne or two of fossil fuels each year, and a supply ship to bring the fuel in.

For some reason, BAS has decided it is not environmentally friendly to poo in the snow. The new station being built here will have a sewage treatment plant that will - at immense cost in energy - process the sewage, disposing of the grey water in the same way as before, then incinerating the solids. That's all very well, but is it really more environmentally friendly? Personally, I very seriously doubt it. Of course it would be nice not to leave poo in the snow, but for goodness sake, when it is there, it ain't doing anyone any harm. One day, perhaps, the ice will reach the sea and it will be released. So what? The Southern Ocean is big, and the bugs will probably be delighted to have something tasty to munch on.

CO2 emissions, on the other hand, are bad. Very bad. And we ought to know: BAS's own research into climate change shows just how dangerous mucking around with the atmosphere really is. So why doesn't BAS do something about its own emissions? The construction of the new station here, with the phenomenal logistics effort required, will release more than 10000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Even when it is running, operating emissions are expected to be higher than those of the current base - despite the projected population of the base being smaller. I reckon that is shameful.

There is another research base being built in Antarctica this year, by the Belgians. It will be powered entirely by renewable energy, despite being put together on a budget a fraction of that of Halley VI. What's more, because melting snow for water is also a very energy-intensive process, their sewage plant will filter and reprocess all the liquid that goes down - and, nice and clean, it will go back into the taps to be used again. What they will do with the solids, they don't say. Given how much thought has gone into the rest of the project though, I doubt they burn it. Perhaps they plan to compost it and grow tomatoes? Mmmm... Now that really would be a good thing. We don't get much fresh food down here.

If they can't do it, why can't we? Come on BAS. Time to get your shit together.

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