Tuesday, July 21, 2009

RIP Greenhouse

Well, right after I posted pictures and text about how much I love the greenhouse and hope it stays around, guess what? The greenhouse is to be closed.

There are a few players in this drama at McMurdo. Gary is the station manager. Bill is the NSF station manager. Angie is the boss over food services, which covers the greenhouse operation.

On Wednesday, everyone who is involved with running the greenhouse was sent an e-mail from Angie which was forwarded by Gary (the station manager). The gist of the e-mail was that a decision was made in Denver to close the greenhouse. No mention of who made that decision, or why. The story is that someone in Denver decided we could assure a greenhouse technician job for next winter was to forgo a greenhouse technician for the summer of '09-'10. It was presented to us as a choice between having a greenhouse in summer '09-'10 or winter of '10.

Because everyone's jobs will get really busy during Winfly (August 20 to late September), it would be better to just close the greenhouse before the Winfly folks get here. Again, it is not clear who made that decision, or why.

A meeting of all the greenhouse volunteers was called to explain the situation, and to give a forum for us to discuss the issue. Around 20 folks showed up for the meeting. It was, in my observation, a very emotional encounter. A lot of us have put a lot of work into nurturing our little green babies, and it is not a small deal that a decision was made by someone 9000 miles away to pull the plug. Some were clearly furious, and several were close to tears. Evidently, one of the workers who actually has greenhouse tasking on the weekly duties went up to the greenhouse and 'terminated' a bunch of plants without giving notice to the folks who were tasked with keeping those babies alive. Some among the group of us assembled were quite stunned that plants were ripped out without the knowledge of their caretakers.

It may seem strange for folks to get choked up about the death of plants. If you haven't been here, don't judge too quickly. There are no plants on the continent-- certainly not around here. Having a haven of light and humidity, with greenery everywhere is a major solace to an ice-ravaged population in the wintertime. I literally can't imagine working down here in the winter without the greenhouse. It is like a tiny island of the real world, in a vast wasteland of dry, cold, and dark.

I know the folks of Denver and Washington probably look at the greenhouse as 25K Kilowatts of drain, yielding a small amount of lettuce. I would remind those bean counters that we have NO PLANES FOR AT LEAST SIX MONTHS. Would you like to go that long without eating a plant that has been dead for less than six years? I don't think so.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Greenhouse Pics


With the worst of the power drama behind us (we hope!), the greenhouse is evidently safe from the power axe. A high point of my week is always going up to the GH on Wednesday afternoons. I test the pH and nutrient levels of all eleven hydroponic systems, and do other little daily tasks like filling the humidifiers.

The greenhouse is a little island of light and humidity in dark, dry McMurdo. It is so dry in the buildings around town that it's crazy. Relative humidity in my dorm is around 1%. Antarctica is by far the driest place on earth, and warming up that cold, dry air makes the RH even lower. In the greenhouse, there are hundreds of plants breathing out moisture, and two humidfiers, so the RH is around 20%. Still pretty dry by stateside standards, but pretty nice by Antarctican standards.

The power plant problem resulted in a lot of lights being turned off to keep power consumption down. It has made McMurdo kind of spooky and strange. Some friends have even reported a spike in depression from being in the dark all the time. I haven't noticed that, but I have been jumping at shadows. The whole town is one big, scary dark alley. The greenhouse is a nice respite from the gloom.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Power Drama

This winter there is a big project going on to renovate the power plant. Last year we had the old power plant and the new power plant, with working generators in both. Some Einstein back in the real world thought it would be a great idea to take all the generators out of the old power plant, and use just the two generators in the new power plant to light up the town.

The problem there is that generators have to be taken down for maintenance quite regularly, and we could be screwed if something blew up. Well, guess what? One of the new generators broke down in a big way over the weekend. It will take weeks to fix. We can barely power the town on one generator, if we conserve power. There is a smaller backup generator called the "Cat in a can" sitting outside the power plant. It's basically a generator installed in a milvan (freight container). It is notoriously unreliable, and shuts down in blowing snow.

Since we really don't have a power supply that is adequate for the town's needs, it's a pretty big deal. It is very cold and dark here this time of year, and it would be a real bummer to be powerless. The NSF station manager called an "all hands meeting" yesterday to lay out the facts. We have to have a contingency plan for what to do if the remaining big generator packs it in. Worst case scenario, we could possibly have to winterize the dorms we live in to conserve power, and all move in together in building 155 (the big, central building with the galley, offices, and dorm rooms). If we had to figure out ways to light up the town with no real power plant, there is even the possibility that we would treat it like a big medevac. In that case, we would prepare the now-winterized runway for an emergency flight. We would probably fly a bunch of people out months early, because there wouldn't be much point in being here with no power (not to mention the safety factor). It's very unlikely that it would come to that, and people aren't particularly freaked at this point. We do have to be ready for problems, though. Part of our emergency plan involves getting the word out that we have a power emergency underway. Everyone is directed to power down all possible equipment at home and at work, and huddle up at a predetermined location.

Well, the timing of the all hands meeting was fortuitous. Today, we had our power emergency. The Cat in a can quit working, and the power went out to part of town. They put all the load on the single generator, and it couldn't handle it all. The power to part of town went off again. I had to turn off all the lights and nearly all the equipment in my building, and move up to a coworker's office in another building. There has been quite a lot of drama going on, and I get to follow it all. Being the radio guy, I can monitor all the traffic as it happens. Just a minute ago I heard a technician on the radio saying he was out in a PistenBully, looking for generators out at Pegasus (the now-winterized runway facility). They're putting as much electrical load as possible on backup generators to take the heat off of the broken power plant. Crazy. There is nobody I know here who didn't think it was an insane idea to go down to two generators. One blows up-- major problems. Oh well, at least it has been interesting lately. I have my fingers crossed that it doesn't get any worse. I know we'll be fine no matter what, but the first thing they will have to do if our power production goes down any more is unplug the greenhouse. It's my favorite place-- the only bright and humid place to go down here. I go up every Wednesday and balance the pH and nutrients in all the hydroponic tanks. It would just kill me to let all those plants die. Fingers crossed!

Edit to add: I mean this post to be an anecdote about the buzz and the drama in McMurdo, and how it affects me personally. Someone closer to the action at the power plant told me that there are some minor factual errors in my account. Not surprising, since I don't work at the power plant, and don't have inside knowledge. I should have added a caveat from the start that my account is just the "word on the street" about how the drama unfolded.