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How the Australian Antarctic Division Gets Fresh Water

Last Updated Jan 11, 2018 · Written by Philippa Land


Antarctica contains around 60% of the world’s fresh water but due to its solid state, it is not easily accessible. On top of having to obtain fresh water from frozen ice sheets, the Australian Antarctic Division is surrounded by the Antarctic Ocean which is of course, also frozen solid. So how does the Australian Antarctic Division obtain fresh water used for everything from cooking, washing to drinking?

How the Australian Antarctic Division Gets Fresh Water

Fresh water is obtained in different ways depending on the station.

Mawson Station

Initially, the Australian Antarctic Division gets fresh water by melting a small amount of the ice plateau outside, behind Mawson station. They do this by circulating hot water through a closed pipe system, running through the ice plateau. The water is then sucked through to the Pump House. The melt hole is currently 8.5 metres deep.

After going through the Pump House, the water is then transported for storage in three large tanks in the Tank House. Hot water is then circulated all through Mawson Station via Site Services, a network of insulated, heated pipelines. Additional heat is added to the Site Services via Mawson’s Powerhouse generators. The living quarters at Mawson station has a pipeline that runs water through heat exchangers, filters, and distributors.

Casey Station

Casey Station, like Mawson Station, pumps water from a melt lake behind the station and stores the fresh water in a heated tank house.

Davis Station

Davis Station gets its fresh water via a tarn which is then processed by means of a Reverse Osmosis System which is able to produce around 18,000 litres every 24 hours. The majority of this water is used up in a day as the average stations demand in Antarctica is approximately 10,000 to 14,000 litres.

Unlike the other stations, Davis is unable to obtain its fresh water from a freshwater lake. Instead, the water is obtained from a small saltwater lake (tarn) which then runs through the Reverse Osmosis plant. The water production can only happen when the salt water lake is unfrozen. There is a window of opportunity to source the water before the lake freezes over again. During this time, the plumbers, assisted by electricians are able to produce in excess of 1.586 million litres of water, which is stored in tanks for use over the entire year. Davis has 2 large outdoor tanks that hold 600,000 litres each, along with numerous internal tanks that hold 250,000 litres. Once these tanks are full, water production stops until the tarn unfreezes the following year.

How the Australian Antarctic Division Gets Fresh Water – Salt Water Lake

Macquarie Island Station

Unlike the other Australian Division stations in Antarctica, the Macquarie Island station gets its fresh water from a dam, about 3 kilometres away on the plateau, 200 metres above sea level. This water is pumped into 2 holding tanks at the station.

Cleaning the Water Tanks

Though the water tanks are only responsible for holding water, they must also be cleaned. This involves first draining the tanks and then cleaning them. The expeditions are required to wear protective clothing with harnesses attached before climbing into the large tanks. They are then washed with a scrubbing brush and pressure washer.

Cleaning the water tanks requires the expeditions to set up a rescue system which allows them to place a stretcher into the water tank around stabilising bars in case of an incident. Once washed thoroughly the tanks are then tested by a doctor to be approved for further use.

Water Saving Measures

Because fresh water is such a precious resource for the Australian Antarctic Division, water saving measures need to be taken. Water saving appliances are installed wherever possible and each person is required to save as much water as they can when going about their daily activities.

Expeditioners at each station are limited to 3 minute showers only. When water is running low the division is required to only shower every second or third day, dependant on resources. A number of other water saving measures and restrictions are also followed. This includes doing a large load of washing, rather than several smaller loads and simple activities like turning off the taps when brushing teeth.

Wastewater Management

A new wastewater treatment plant is scheduled to be installed this year at the Davis station that will turn the wastewater there into some of the freshest water in the world. The innovative new treatment plant uses germ-zapping technologies to process kitchen and human waste into water that will have a minimal impact on the marine environment in the area.

Wastewater management in Antarctica effecting marine life - Emperor penguins

This will be the best treatment plant in Antarctica once in operation. The 1.5 million dollar plant was built at the Australian Antarctic Division’s headquarters in Kingston. The wastewater will be treated by a secondary treatment plant and will undergo ozone and ultraviolet disinfection, ultrafiltration, chlorination and then go through a biological activated carbon filter and finally reverse osmosis.

The plant has already been trialed at TasWater’s Selfs Point in Hobart over the last 2 years. A team of specialised tradespeople is due to install the plant in late 2018. More of these plants will then be built at Australia’s other Antarctic stations. The germ zapped wastewater will be water that exceeds that of the Australian and World Health Organisation’s drinking water guidelines.

Plumbers in the Australian Antarctic Division

One of the most valuable jobs in the Australian Antarctic Division is in the production of water. Mechanical services plumbers in the Australian Antarctic Division have a range of responsibilities, including water production, maintaining heating systems and sewage. Unlike plumbers in Australia, there are no spare parts to go out and buy so those in the Antarctic Division need to be highly resourceful.

Mechanical services plumbers in the Australian Antarctic Division are responsible for:

  • Maintaining reticulated heating hot water and associated pumping systems
  • Maintaining reticulated potable water and associated systems
  • Maintaining fire services water and associated pumping systems
  • The air handling plant, including the ventilation and exhaust systems
  • Sewage treatment plant
  • High-temperature incineration plant
  • LPG installations (including field huts)
  • Water production plant (including melt bell or reverse osmosis)
  • Medical gases and sterilisation equipment

Getting water in Antarctica is a bit more complicated than it is back in Australia, but we have some of the best plumbers around who can help with anything from a leaky tap to a plunge pool. Get a free quote from plumbers in all major cities including Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Darwin, Adelaide, and Hobart.  

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