A major water problem on station is fixed with the aid of teamwork and the changing seasons are highlighted in photography at Mawson.

Teamwork saves Mawson’s water

The beginning of the week saw two plumbers head off up the hill with an electrician to replace a leaking join on the site services pipework that circulates heated water through our melt bell, which is where our water supply comes from. The heated melt bell has over the years created a cavern of water in the ice field.

Normally this would be a relatively simple job. In the real world maybe, but we are in Antarctica. The pipework in question turned out to be a forty five degree bend that a previous expeditioner had cleverly formed up himself. Unfortunately the bend was not perfectly aligned with the pipe it was joined to, and as a result the weld at one end failed and had started leaking. Of course we didn’t know this until we had peeled off all the insulation and exposed the pipe. Extra time was required now to realign the pipe as well as fitting a new bend. Eventually after a couple more hours of labouring than we had estimated, it was time to turn the bell on again and begin the process of priming the circulating pipework. Here’s where the epic week really began.

We soon became aware that some of the pipework had frozen. Normally these jobs are undertaken in summer when conditions are significantly warmer (still mostly below zero degrees celsius, but it’s all relative), and we generally wouldn’t attempt a job like this on a −20°C degree day. But as any plumber with half a brain will tell you, leaks generally don’t get better, they get worse. Much worse. So we took our chances on the first calm day to arrive.

Once we realised we weren’t going to get the water flowing anytime soon we went into damage control mode, and started to work on preventing the situation becoming worse which would mean the cavern freezing over and losing our water supply completely. The first task the next day was to winch the melt bell out of the cavern. This is a risky job, so a JHA was duly completed and signed off by our station leader, which highlighted the requirement for any personnel going closer than two meters to the cavern to be harnessed and roped to a belay in case the ice above the cavern collapsed. The winching job was completed safely, and after a long time chipping away ice and snow some of the connecting pipework was removed.

Due to the fact that the pump in the bell had been running for a time with static pressure in the pipes, we had concerns with its integrity, so the decision was made to recondition the bell with a new pump and check valve. All this was completed while the rest of the crew worked on other aspects of the job, such as defrosting pipework with a combination of heat trace and a wonderful machine we call ‘The Herman Nelson'.

Eventually on Friday, the reconditioned bell was winched into place and the task of priming the system began. This all went surprisingly smoothly until the last section of pipe was connected, when it became evident there was still a plug of ice somewhere preventing flow. Some quick work saw a bridging section of pipe made up and temporarily connected, which enabled us to reinstate our water supply at last. Some huge sighs of relief were heard amongst us all. We still have the task of defrosting the ice slug in the last section of pipe to deal with, but for now we have a water supply, and life on station can return to normal without the need for two minute showers and buckets to catch our shower water for toilet flushing purposes.

Finally, thanks must go to a number of staff here who willingly assisted Charlie and myself with the task. For me, the week highlighted one of the best things about life here at Mawson. We are a group of individuals each with our own unique qualities, but when the need arises everyone cooperates as a team and focusses on the situation at hand. Without these qualities, life would be a lot harder.

Change of seasons

People down here only talk of two seasons: summer and winter. It seems that we miss the gradual transition called autumn. In the last month we have gone from sun streaming through the windows at breakfast to near dark pre-dawn, from having a blue harbour to frozen solid sea ice, from an abundance of Weddell seals and Adélie penguins to only fourteen hardy or foolhardy expeditioners. It brings home the fact that we are on our own now.

Three weeks ago on a clear and cold night, the harbour froze over and a couple of days later a blizzard blew all the sea ice away. The seals and penguins came back and lay about in the sunshine for one last time. The day before the sea froze again we were visited by a lone emperor penguin and a minke whale. It was like nature was giving us a last treat before suddenly taking everything away.