Coming clean on my polar mission
BY DR KATHRYN MUMFORD
(BE(ChemEng)(Hons) 2003, BCom 2003, PhD 2009, GCertUniTeach 2012)
The first time I saw snow I was 23 and flying into Casey Station in Antarctica, after 10 days sailing through huge seas and ice in the Southern Ocean. That final 20-minute helicopter trip, flying around icebergs, was an incredible introduction to the continent.
Once at the station, there wasn’t much time to enjoy the scenery; everyone had a job. The most important immediate task was transferring stores ashore before the ship left. It would not return for three-and-a-half months.
Since that first trip I have travelled to the Antarctic stations at Casey, Davis and McMurdo, and the sub-Antarctic base at Macquarie Island, every second year or so as part of a collaboration between the University of Melbourne and the Australian Antarctic Division.
I’m working with a team to develop technologies for the remediation of contaminated sites. Before the 1980s it was common for rubbish to be dumped close to stations, later to be covered by snow and ice or simply pushed out onto sea-ice that melted over summer, sending it to the bottom of the ocean. Long‑lasting damage to the surrounding flora and fauna has put a stop to these practices. Diesel, the main means of power generation and the source of inevitable spills, is also a problem.
We are now working to clean up these areas in the simplest, most cost-effective way – and trying to influence other nations with a presence on the continent to do the same. For now, most countries believe it is too difficult and costly to clean up their sites. We want to change this.
Obviously the environment of Antarctica provides a unique set of challenges when designing and implementing remediation systems. Low temperatures, freezing conditions, low soil nutrient contents and variable and high water flows all affect the suitability of systems that might be used in temperate climates. One of the areas that we have been focusing our efforts on is the development of Permeable Reactive Barrier (PRB) technologies. This involves creating a trench filled with reactive material that traps and degrades fuel contaminants into harmless products while allowing water to pass through. These developments have been highly successful, with a number of PRB installations completed at Antarctic and sub-Antarctic stations.
Antarctica has provided some of the most rewarding and exciting experiences of my career. It is a land of extremes, the highest, coldest and windiest continent on Earth where wind speeds can reach 200 km/h.
It is generally assumed that if the wind speed (in kilometres per hour) gets above your body weight (in kilograms), you shouldn’t walk outside due to the possibility of being swept away. In October and November this happens regularly, but in later months you can get caught off guard. On one memorable January night a group of us were working in the science laboratory. We didn’t notice the wind picking up and at dinner time, we suited up and headed for the door – which wouldn’t open due to the extraordinary wind force.
We weren’t going to make it back to the living quarters for dinner. Luckily we had a stash of emergency chocolate so hunkered down for the night. This event made me appreciate the unpredictability of Antarctica. Although I was living comfortably, with ready access to many modern conveniences, the tables can turn quickly.
Most of the field seasons that I have spent in Antarctica were over Christmas. This is when much of the accumulated annual snow begins to melt and the contaminants that interest me begin to migrate and interact with our PRBs.
Christmas in Antarctica is cause for great celebration. One of my strongest memories is of volunteering on Christmas Eve to go out and collect ice. Led by a runway technician, we boarded one of the Hagglunds track vehicles and headed out beyond the station limits to an area of thick blue ice.
Here he fired up a chainsaw and started cutting huge blocks of ice to take back to the station. The biggest was carved into a penguin about a metre high. Smaller blocks were cut into plates of progressively smaller size. When stacked together they made a two-metre-high Christmas tree that was then decorated with seafood for the Christmas Day feast. And the ice offcuts made a nice addition to our after-dinner whiskies.
Read more about the University’s work in Antarctica on Pursuit.