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3 April, 2000

Palmer Station; Norm LaVoie, Maintenance Technician

Question 44: Are icebergs made of salt water or fresh water?

Windy weather with snow and sleet continues today; we are not diving. The L.M. Gould arrived for the final time (before our departure) yesterday morning. It brought the last of the winter crew and the team working with the station's hazardous waste materials. Every two years the hazmat generated by science groups is sorted, documented, and shipped back to Chile or the United States (depending on what it is) to be disposed of properly. The Gould is leaving today and will take two weeks to return to Chile by way of a science cruise in the Weddell Sea to the east of the Antarctic Peninsula. After departure there will be 34 people on station.

Yesterday, in addition to a tour of the station's water system, our Maintenance Technician, Norm LaVoie, showed me through some of the station's other basic operating systems.

The station generates its own electrical power with two main generators (250 kilowatts each) that are housed on the first floor of GWR. There is a smaller auxiliary (back-up) generator in BioLab that generates 100 kw and is run once a week. Everything on the station except the Zodiacs, four-wheeler and snowmobiles operates on diesel fuel. The approximately 100,000 gallons used each year by the station are off loaded by the Gould in two batches. 70,000 gallons were just off loaded in February. For comparison, one tanker truck holds 10,000 gallons. With all the pumps on the ship and the station working, it took seven hours to transfer the fuel from ship to station.

While the fuel is being transferred, a containment boom is placed around the Gould to prevent any accidental spillage from contaminating the marine environment. Like all other vital systems at Palmer, the fuel storage system has a back up. There is fuel in only one of the two tanks. The second is strictly to transfer the fuel to in case of a leak in the primary storage tank. There is always diesel fuel in the line. Gravity feeds the "gas station" by the boathouse, which is used to fill up all the heavy equipment. BioLab and GWR each have a day tank that holds the diesel for use in heating and running generators on a daily basis.

The non-hazardous, biological waste generated by the station goes through a macerator (like a large garbage disposal unit) and is diluted by sea water before it is flushed out into Hero Inlet. Our regular trash is collected, sorted, compacted and sent back to Chile for disposal in the Punta Arenas landfill. The science waste that is not toxic also goes to Chile. However, anything that looks like it came from a laboratory, even if it isn't dangerous, goes back to the United States.

Finally, to prevent us from starving, outside the end of the BioLab building are two freezer vans that contain enough food to feed the station for an entire year. The food is constantly rotated so that it doesn't spoil and includes things like turkey rather than only canned meat.

Norm leaves today on the Gould, but has been here for the entire summer season starting in October. This is his first and probably only trip to the ice. It is an experience he looks upon as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity involving many firsts for him: a ship voyage across the Drake Passage; travel to Spanish-speaking countries south of the equator; and living in Antarctica for seven months. The hard part has been spending so much time away from his family, something he is not willing to do again.

Norm has worked for a variety of companies in the Boston area operating and working on building and hospital maintenance systems. He has an Unlimited Refrigeration Technician, a Boiler Technician, and a Federal Reclaimers (for CFC and freon, hazmat) license. Norm says he would have been astounded two years ago if someone had told him that he would come to Antarctica, but he was looking for a change of pace and when the idea of working in Antarctica came up it rang all the bells as something he wanted to do.

In his job, he maintains all the basic systems that allow the station to run, does general repairs and gives station tours to the summer visitors from ships that visit. He has enjoyed his time here immensely. He is an avid rock hound (the area's rocks contain quartz, granite, basalt and iron pyrite) and geography buff--now he has been to a continent that only 3,500 researchers and 10,000 tourists a year out of 6 billion people get to visit. Norm feels very lucky to have come to the Peninsula. He views Palmer as the Grand Central Station of Antarctica. Everything, including wildlife, icebergs, fantastic scenery, ships, and planes (two British Twin Otters landed on the glacier behind the station on their way from Rothera to Chile for the winter) can be found here!

Answer 43: The Kelvin scale is the other universal temperature scale. Its degrees are measured in the same increments as the Centigrade scale but starts at absolute zero (equal to -273.16 degrees C). There is a special low-temperature scale called the Leyden scale. It uses the boiling points of hydrogen (-253 C) and oxygen (-183 C) as its fixed points and divides the interval using the Centigrade degree. The Reaumur scale, freezing point of water at 0 and boiling at 80 degrees, is still used in some areas of Europe.

The station's main generators.

Diesel intake line hookup at boathouse.

Macerator grinders on our waste line.

Food storage vans.

Norm is also responsible for our Sunday barbecued beans!

The R.V. Laurence M. Gould leaving Palmer Station.

Palmer "gas station" on the fuel line.

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