Water Literacy 1

Water, water, every where,: Nor any drop to drink.

One of the key eco-literacy questions is: “Where does your water come from?” Here at South Pole station, the answer is: “Rodwell #2.”

Rodwell #3, where the magic will happen

Raul Rodriguez developed a cold-weather well system for Greenland, and the result has been named for him: The Rodwell. What would be waste heat from the power plant is used to heat glycol. That glycol heats the station, and is also sent over to the Rodwells.

Two pumps, because almost everything at South Pole is designed for redundancy

Warm water at 90 F goes down, cool water at 40 F comes up

At the head of the Rodwell, water is pumped down a hole in the ice, and pumped back out. It comes out at about 40 degrees F. The warm water continues to melt a deep cistern in the ice. Well, it can’t really be ice or this wouldn’t work. It must be packed snow, with enough trapped air so that the water can melt it and dig a well.

217.3 feet to the surface, 354.2 feet to the bottom

The Utilities Techs go out and measure the depths. Weekly, they drop a plumb bob on a marked like until it gets to the bottom. Daily they raise the pump until it sucks air. This gives a model for how the Rodwell is doing, and how much water it contains.

About 30 or 40 feet of plywood to the Ice Tunnels

This is the real wellhead. I must have been standing on top of the actual cistern.

This is the real wellhead. I must have been standing on top of the actual cistern.

The plywood-lined hole in the surface goes down into the Ice Tunnels and then continues down and down. Ice and packed snow are good insulators. In the Ice Tunnels it’s always about -60, but that 40-degree water also can stay at 40 without a lot of added energy.

The water that gets pumped out of the Rodwell is some of the purest natural water on Earth. It’s so pure that if untreated it can dissolve the pipes. It’s so pure that if you drink it, it will leach minerals out of you. The water gets pumped back to the power plant, and held in tanks for use. It’s mildly treated with minerals to be fit for use. And at the bottom of the well, the snow has been sitting there since maybe the year 1000 or so.

The water flows through pipes like this in the tunnels, as does the sewer. At 4 o'clock is a heat-trace, keeping it warm.
Water and sewer run parallel, one over the other.

The water flows through pipes like this in the tunnels, as does the sewer. At 4 o’clock inside the pipe is a heat-trace, keeping it warm.
Water and sewer run parallel, one over the other.


The water is pumped to the station in high-tech, insulated pipes in the Ice Tunnels. Rodwell #2 is about a thousand feet away from the station, and each section of pipe is maybe ten feet between joints. Each joint takes a plumber about a day to finish. That’s a day of working at -60.

The station is good about water use. With 149 people resident last week, we used 22.5 gallons per day per person. That’s for laundry, cooking, science, showers, drinking, and flushing. Everything.

I’ve been cheating a bit. All of the pictures above are of Rodwell #3, not our current source of drinking water, which is Rodwell #2. Rodwell #3 is slightly further along the tunnels, and still under construction. The two wells are similar, except the new one is updated. The building is roomier and warmer. One of the major maintainance projects for summer 2012-2013 is to bring Rodwell #3 on-line as our source of water. I’m not sure how the cut-over to the new Rodwell is going to be staged. Odds are it will leave some wonderful water unused in Rodwell #2.

That brings us to another key eco-literacy question: “Where does your waste-water go?” Here at South Pole station, the answer is: Rodwell #1. And yes, “waste water” is a euphimism for “pee and poop” as well as water that goes down the sinks, showers, and laundry. It all goes directly to Rodwell #1. When Rodwell #3 comes on line, Rodwell #1 will be capped, and the waste-water will be diverted to Rodwell #2. In a few thousand years there will be brown icebergs.

Also for your enjoyment your tax dollars paid for someone to write this.

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3 responses to “Water Literacy 1

  1. Good stuff.

    “So pure it will leach minerals out of you if you drink it.” Is this right? Will this happen if you, say, drink distilled water?

    “The Ice Tunnels”. Cool name. Sounds like the name for a level in a video game.

  2. Stuart calls “shenanigans” on me! After careful research, and being unable to find a Straight Dope article on the subject, I would say that yes, it leaches minerals out of you, but it’s unlikely to be any kind of health issue, since you’re probably eating food and stuff.

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