Amiga Technical Resource

Working in Antarctica

In September 2012 I began a second 13-month contract as the Scott Base communications engineer for Antarctica NZ, Telecom NZ and Downer Engineering. Six months of sunlight, six months of darkness, temperatures of +3 to -50degC, interesting people and varied work are just some of the many features of spending a year in this icy environment.

Below is a diary of progress and interesting events along the way, oldest at the bottom and most current at the top. Note that these are my own personal views and experiences which may not reflect the views of Antarctica NZ, Telecom NZ or Downer Engineering.

Diaries from the 2010-2011, 2014-2015 and 2016 seasons are also available.

Select month to view:
September 2012 October 2012 November 2012 December 2012 January 2013 February 2013 March 2013 April 2013 May 2013 June 2013 July 2013 August 2013 September 2013 October 2013

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April 2013
  • 28/4/2013: It's been an event packed week with the first winter medical evacuation of the season on Monday, the last sunset on Wednesday, the ANZAC morning service on Thursday and a Mexican themed party last night.

    The medical evacuation had been in preparation for a little over a week for returning a sick American from McMurdo Station to NZ. It involves the American heavy plant operators working long shifts to clear 2 miles of snow off the Pegasus Runway on the ice shelf so that the C17 aircraft can land on the smooth ice. They worked long and hard to have the runway open at least a day earlier than expected; the entire operation was very slick. Mind you, they have had enough practice at it; the medical evacuations seem to be becoming common place every season. A downside of their efficiency was that the aircraft departed NZ so early that the fresh food purchased by the Americans didn't make it to the airport in time. We received two small boxes of tomatoes, feijoas, bananas and other tasty treats thanks to the good staff at Antarctica NZ in Christchurch; plus a mail bag.

    The last sunset event included a couple of Hagglund trips to Castle Rock to view the last of the sun which will make its next appearance at 12:15PM on the 19th of August. Some of the photos made it to New Zealand TV and national newspapers, which inaccurately reported "Antarctica New Zealand's 10 Scott Base staff braved -39 degrees Celsius for their final glimpse of the Sun...". Actually, Antarctica NZ only have nine staff here; I work for Downer Engineering. Plus I didn't waste half a day going out to Castle Rock; you could see the last of the sun perfectly fine from Scott Base with the benefit of actually getting something productive done.

    So now I'm all angry once more due to the inaccuracy and misinformation of the media, here are some photos from the week.

    ANZAC_service1.jpg (175307 bytes)
    Our annual ANZAC service at 10AM was shared with about 25 Americans from McMurdo Station. I broadcasted a recording of The Last Post traditional bugle music over the PA system. It only seems like two years ago I was doing exactly the same thing. Oh wait, I was.

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    Another shot of the 10AM ANZAC service with the flag lowered to half-mast.

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    After the ANZAC service we invited the Americans inside for coffee, ANZAC biscuits and sausage rolls.

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    Despite the sun now being below the horizon until the 19th of August, there is still plenty of ambient light from around 10AM until 2PM. In the photo above, the moon sits in the lovely pink sky above White Island in the distance.

    Erebus_red_plume.jpg (51895 bytes)
    Mt Erebus also looks nice; the mid-day sunlight behind the volcano highlights the smoke plume with an eerie red tinge.

  • 21/4/2013: It's about that time of the year where it really starts cooling off in the last few days of remaining sunshine. The temperature gauge read -40C this morning, certainly a lot nicer to be inside. The live Scott Base weather website is here if anyone is curious about the current conditions.

    The final sunset is sometime next week. It's surprising how quickly each day is becoming darker, with over 25 minutes less daylight every day. According to today's daily forecast, sunrise is at 11:09AM and setting at half past two.

    Saturday_base_tasks.jpg (102527 bytes)
    Every Saturday after base meeting at 3PM is time for base tasks. This generally consists of a few people giving someone a hand with something a bit tricky, snow shovelling, moving bulk food from the store to the kitchen freezer, time consuming jobs where it's a lot easier with a few more people, or sometimes when people can't be arsed doing their own job then they get everyone else to do it for them. In the photo above we're giving Lex a hand to shift an old steel frame with the telehandler.

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    Our water engineer, Graeme, has finally got to the bottom of the leek in the waste water treatment plant that's been there since April Fool's Day.

    MF_radar_transmitter.jpg (89374 bytes)
    Looking south with the MF radar transmitter hut in the foreground and Mt Discovery left of centre in the background.

    Dave_compacting_cardboard.jpg (158865 bytes)
    Dave the power engineer also takes care of compacting and storing the waste to be returned to NZ on the container ship each February. The old aircraft hangar building is used for processing the waste and is one of the few unheated buildings. In the photo above, Dave is compacting cardboard into wool bales. It's close to -40C working in the hangar and hydraulic press struggles to operate at these temperatures.

    Fixing_Ionosonde.jpg (126418 bytes)
    I was giving Tim the Hobbit a hand to repair a clock drifting issue that the Ionosonde had. This is an old instrument that has been operating since 1958. It contains a HF transmitter that sweeps from about 1MHz to 20MHz or so in order to measure which frequencies are being reflected by the ionosphere at any one time. It's used in a worldwide network of similar devices for predicting the propagation of HF radio signals.

    Weather_chart_recorder.jpg (115904 bytes)
    Many of the original weather recording instruments from the first days of Scott Base in 1957 are still used today for the official weather observations. One of them is this paper chart recorder which plots daily wind speed and direction. The temperature meter on the wall reads -35.2 degrees Celsius.

  • 14/4/2013: We do this thing where the first Saturday of each month is a day off in addition to the usual Sunday; so once per month we get a two-day weekend. The Americans at McMurdo Station do a similar thing. In previous years Scott Base and McMurdo have arranged to have the long weekend on the same days in order to share parties and other social events. But for whatever crazy reason, it has worked out that our long weekends don't align with that of McMurdo, so the Americans seem to be getting annoyed that we don't turn up to their Saturday night events and we don't seem to invite them to any of ours. Wow, I wouldn't have though it would have been so hard to collaborate and align these dates, but it doesn't seem to have worked at all this season.

    Anyway, the Americans ran a 'Death and Taxes' party on Saturday to mark the end of their financial year. Didn't go myself as of course Saturday was one of our work days, although reportedly they had live music. While there are generally a number of musicians within the 130 or so American crew, this year is quite different in that there are very few musicians. Of the few about, they mainly seem to do solo stuff as opposed to in a group or band.

    Likewise at Scott Base, I miss my band members from the 2011 season. There are few musical people here, aside from the science technician, Tim, who looks like a hobbit and seems to have motivational issues. So to get something musical going, one of the managers at McMurdo, who happens to be a veteran harmonica player, has started coming over to Scott Base on Monday nights to play a bit of music with us. Myself on electric/rhythm guitar and Tim the hobbit on drums. Unfortunately our new harmonica player doesn't really like any of the music I enjoy playing (pop, rock) and I don't really like much of the music he likes (American folk and blues). However, we're all trying to be quite open in the hopes that we can get something together. We pulled off a nice version of CCR's Proud Mary and Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here which worked surprisingly well with the harmonica. This Monday we have another American coming over called "Sandwitch" who plays the trombone. I really don't know what to expect!

    Field_centre_door_replacement.jpg (185874 bytes)
    Over winter, the three commonly used vehicles live inside in the field centre to keep them warm. Access is by way of insulated folding panel doors which get a lot of use. One of the older doors was scheduled to be replaced, but the people doing this decided to put it off. Then as it was getting used normally one day, the door fell to pieces. So the replacement of the door happened anyway. See what happens when you procrastinate?

    Toilet_seat_painting.jpg (184276 bytes)
    Last Sunday was the Scott Base toilet seat painting contest. Obviously I ran to the other end of the base to avoid this, but I somehow got dragged in to be the judge. I asked if there were any easily offended Americans there, which of course there were. It turned out they wanted me to insult them in a Simon Cowell type of sarcastic way.

    Lex_halfway_day.jpg (125670 bytes)
    Someone had also worked out that we're about half way through the 2012- 2013 season. To celebrate this, Lex wore his dressing gown to breakfast. He insisted the slippers were safety boots for the workshop. "Tweety's head is made of steel!"

    White_Island_sunset.jpg (80313 bytes)
    And of course the days are still getting shorter. Still another week or so until the final sunset, but for now the sun is rising at 9:50AM and setting at 4PM. A lovely sunrise this week gave White Island a nice shade of pink.

  • 7/4/2013: Last week I mentioned that we'd had an Easter egg hunt which went well. Although there turned out to be more to it than that. Someone had hidden some chocolate eggs in the sauna, which contains an electric heater with a collection of rocks on top. The other person who had the cryptic clues to the location of the elusive eggs didn't figure out that they led to the sauna. Meanwhile, someone else decided to use the sauna, so they turned it on and left it for an hour to heat up. Molly the electrician happened to be walking nearby and smelled some unusual burning chocolate odour, looked into the sauna and saw flames coming from the rocks. So it was quickly turned off and cleaned up. So we even managed to have our own minor Easter drama in the end.

    Otherwise the winter work plods on as usual. No shortage of project work or routine maintenance to be done.

    An unusual activity planned for our day off today is a toilet seat paining contest with the Americans. It's no wonder that everyone thinks that people from Antarctica are weirdoes. Instead of being a part of these preposterous shenanigans, it might be time to run to the other end of Scott Base and work on some music instead.

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    The Easter cake made by Marie, one of the winter Antarctic Heritage Trust conservators. Made from chocolate, nuts and dried fruit.

    Leek_in_waste_water_plant.jpg (124301 bytes)
    Last Monday was the 1st of April - April Fool's Day. We put out an urgent call to our water engineer, Graeme, regarding a big leek in the waste water treatment plant. After dashing to the water treatment building, he emerged quickly afterwards with an annoyed "I've been fooled" expression on his face. Yes, people from Antarctica are weirdoes because this is the kind of thing we have to do for fun.

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    A morning photo from the wind farm, thanks to Molly for this.

    Pegasus_road_sun_6-4-13.jpg (119900 bytes)
    Yesterday turned out to be fairly calm and warm, only -20C. Time for the regular inspection of the ground laid cables to our satellite station 5km away. Nice views of the sunlight bouncing off the clouds and ice shelf.

    Mainland_6-4-13.jpg (131305 bytes)
    The Antarctica mainland was in sunlight despite our cloudy cover; this photo taken near the satellite station at Arrival Heights. These rocky hills in the foreground collect very little snow due to their exposure to the strong winds which keeps much of the ground snow free.

    McMurdo_vehicles_6-4-13.jpg (118950 bytes)
    A collection of older vehicles stored outside at McMurdo Station over winter. They're probably due for return to America on the next cargo ship in February 2014 to be sold. Our power engineer, Dave, is keen to get his hands on one of the six-wheeled trucks. Not sure why, these American vehicles are all left-hand drive and would be problematic to get road registered back in New Zealand.

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    Snow shovelling over winter is one of those never ending jobs.

    Tims_sundog_photo.jpg (52677 bytes)
    Tim, our science technician, took this sunrise photo one morning during his daily weather measurements. He sent it into the TV news and it appeared on both TV1 and TV3 news. The two bands of sunlight seen at each side of the photo is a phenomenon known as sun dogs which occur when ice crystals in the air bend rays of light from the sun.