Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. That’s the situation Kiwi scientists at Scott Base in Antarctica face on a daily basis, and it’s the challenge Antarctica New Zealand water engineer Jeanne Vidal will be up against in her work with water infrastructure for the Scott Base redevelopment project, funded by the New Zealand Government earlier this year.
“Antarctica is one of the driest places on the planet because it has almost no rainfall and all the drinkable water there lies within the frozen ice shelf,” Jeanne says. “But water is life, everyone needs it. At Scott Base, we produce potable water using a reverse osmosis plant and then move it around the base in pipes that have heat tracers around them to stop it from freezing.
“There are also water storage tanks, for both drinking water and fire-fighting use. It’s so dry in Antarctica that fire in the base is one of our biggest risks”.
The challenge of surviving and thriving in such a harsh landscape is what Jeanne and many other engineers working in Antarctica find so interesting. Sourcing materials and parts, maintenance, water production and wastewater treatment, analysing data, managing assets and optimising infrastructure design are all part of her job.
“Engineers must be able to think on their feet because of the dynamic environment at Scott Base,” she says. “You have to be prepared to troubleshoot and to solve problems, but at the same time you’ve got to be careful because all the base’s assets are linked – one change can have a flow on effect on other assets, so you need to collaborate with other team members.
“I like the fact it requires such a team effort, and that you’re talking to your colleagues about issues every day. Maybe you learn something new, or even solve the problem together.”
The Scott Base redevelopment was given the green light in October, with the Government issuing a permit for the works and confirming the $344 million allocated for the project in Budget 2021 could now be used to upgrade Aotearoa’s ageing Antarctic home and wind farm. The rebuild will be completed around 2028 and the process involves first crafting a temporary base to house researchers, scientists, main Scott Base staff and construction crew while the main redevelopment takes place.
“It’s going to be really exciting because you’ll see the evolution of the project over a number of years.”
The new base will be constructed at PrimePort Timaru before it is separated into eight modules and shipped off to Antarctica.
Jeanne, who is based in Christchurch, is due to fly to Antarctica for the first time in February 2022 for a two-to-three-week stay at Scott Base, with the aim of familiarising herself with the water, heating and ventilation infrastructure, as well as scoping all the challenges.
“It’s going to be really interesting. I’ll be with some people who are returnees to Antarctica so it’ll be good to learn from them. Even though I have extensive experience outside of New Zealand, it’s a different setting and a completely different environment. There’s always space to learn on a personal and professional level”.
Jeanne grew up in the Philippines and New Zealand, and studied civil engineering in Auckland, but she has since worked in some amazing remote locations around the world. She interned at a council in Melbourne, Australia, worked as a water engineering consultant, and eventually joined Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), where she embarked on seven assignments in the likes of Ethiopia, South Sudan and Afghanistan – using her civil engineering background to support the water and sanitation in refugee camps and isolated villages, constructing hospitals and infection and prevention control (IPC) in epidemic settings.
She says she originally wanted to quit engineering and considered studying to become a medical professional, but was drawn back to engineering because of the variety it provides and the places it can take you around the world.
“I love that it’s hands-on and that you always have to think outside the box,” she says. “In a humanitarian setting, I’ve had positions where I was hands-on, digging trenches to lay pipes in a remote village, managing and coordinating over 50 national staff, or sometimes acting as a technical advisor for both expatriates and national staff. It’s very dynamic; it’s fluid, like water.”
Engineering jobs are in high demand around the world, and New Zealand is no different. Even dream employers like Antarctica New Zealand recruit engineers annually, with many staying on the icy continent for the whole research season – September to March – and some remaining for the entire winter.
Jeanne says having “a curious mind” is essential for people considering engineering as a career pathway.
“Engineering studies was difficult. But once you find what you’re passionate about, whether its mechanical, civil or water engineering, it can be a very rewarding learning experience.
“Don’t be put off if you don’t think you’re a numbers person or technical person. If you’re passionate about it, just go for it and work hard at the same time.”
Jeanne urges more young women interested in engineering to take the leap.
“Don’t shy away if, for example, you’re one of only five women in the classroom. It doesn’t matter. I’m seeing a lot more women in engineering, which is great, and I’ve had jobs where there were an almost equal number of girls and guys in the industry. It’s good to have that kind of balance.”