History of water management at Australia's Antarctic stations

A tripod frame sits over an icy hole.
Melt bell suspended over new melt hole (Photo: Ewan Curtis)
Pipes and equipment in a plant room.Historical image from 1973 of Davis Station Expeditioners loading snow into melter for use as drinking water The sketch diagram of the snow melter and how it works.

Antarctica is the driest continent on the planet, and the provision of fresh water has remained a constant challenge for expeditioners since the formation of ANARE in 1947.

Each station obtains its water supply through different means, ranging from reverse osmosis to melting blue ice, pumping from glacier streams and melt lakes.

Heard Island

When Australia established a base at Atlas Cove on Heard Island in 1947, the men were supplied with five Furphy water tanks, well known in rural Australia.

Water was always a problem. There was insufficient spouting for collecting rainwater on the buildings, and during the summer months it was collected from a small glacier stream. The harsh winter months, when everything was frozen, presented more of a challenge.

Johnny Abbotsmith, diesel mechanic during the first year, devised an ingenious snow melter. Designed from a 44 gallon drum, it had another container inside it to hold the snow as it melted to water.

The snow melter worked on the same principle as the modern Trangia stoves, with one vessel being heated inside another. Seal blubber was added to the outside of the top container and as it melted, it became the fuel for the fire. The arrangement was reported as being replaced in 1950, but photographs show it was still in use in 1953.

The Furphy water tank

ANARE used Furphy water tanks on the first expedition to Heard Island in 1947, and a number were also used in the early years of ANARE on Macquarie Island. The Furphy water tank symbolises for many Australians a rural past with simple moral values and individual enterprise.

The cast iron tank ends with their idiosyncratic inscriptions have become highly-valued collectors' items. The style and wording of the inscriptions can be used to date the water tank. The first end casings were simply inscribed with the brand 'Furphy', but in 1895, John Furphy added what has remained the firm's motto:
Good, better best – never let it rest – till your good is better, and your better best.

John's son, William, added a Pitman's shorthand inscription in 1910, which was modified over the years, as is seen in the tanks used on Heard Island. It translates as:  Water is the gift of God, but beer and whisky are concoctions of the devil, come and have a drink of water.

An admirer of Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes, William added a modified version of Hugh's post World War I call to the nation to 'produce, populate or perish'. This is accompanied on the tank with an illustration of a stork holding a baby.