Ice and Medicine at the end of the earth

8. Where does the poop and pee go?

No one took credit for this great question.  But it sounds like a lot of Mr. Lane’s students are dying to know how waste is handled at the South Pole.

The quick answer is that the poop and pee get stored in the ice at South Pole Station. Eventually, the poop, pee, and surrounding ice will flow into the ocean, but that will take a few thousand years.

The longer answer starts with how we get water. Or to be more specific, liquid water since there is plenty of snow and ice around. Hot water is pumped about 250 m below the surface. Why so deep? The snow that falls at the surface needs time to densify into ice.  It take between 100 and 200 m to get dense enough so that the water pumped down can’t flow between the snow grains.

So how does pumping hot water down into the ice result in water to drink? It’s the heat carried by this water that melts more ice, resulting in excess that can be pumped back to the surface. These are called rod wells and they typically function for about 7 years before the cavity gets to large and it is no longer efficient.

When the rod wells are no longer good and producing water, they are shut off, leaving a cavity that can be filled with our poop and pee. So the pipes are rerouted, with water coming from a new rod well and our poop and pee going into the old one.

For information on how McMurdo handles human waste, check out this prior post.

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