Amiga Technical Resource

Working in Antarctica

From September 2014 to October 2015 I'm on my third summer-winter 13-month contract as the Scott Base communications engineer for Antarctica NZ, Telecom NZ International and Downer Engineering. I'm still uncertain what keeps me coming back, possibly a combination of great people and interesting work. Temperatures of +3 to -50degC, the constant daylight of summer and the relentless darkness of winter are part of the many challenges of living and working at New Zealand's Antarctic research station.

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, 2012-2013 and 2016 seasons are also available.

Select month to view:
September 2014 October 2014 November 2014 December 2014 January 2015 February 2015 March 2015 April 2015 May 2015 June 2015 July 2015 August 2015 September 2015 October 2015

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April 2015
  • 26/4/2015: After a week of flight delays from the NZ Air Force C-130, the cargo flight was cancelled on Tuesday. The delays were partly due to unfavourable weather at this end, but mostly due to "mechanical issues" with the aircraft, so we were informed. This got many people upset as they'd been waiting on important cargo, including cable ties and data cable for the Field Centre remodelling project. As a result, there were many not very nice things to be said about the NZ Air Force by certain Scott Base staff and some of the Americans from over the hill at McMurdo Station. However, it didn't affect me at all; while I'm waiting on some small parts to complete a few repair jobs, there's nothing critical. Besides, everyone knew it was an experimental flight, it was never guaranteed. If you're familliar with winter here, waiting for months for important and urgent cargo is just a fact of life. If you can't pre-plan, then you just have to suck it up and wait. It's not like there's any assured deliveries, nor can you just pop down to the hardware store.

    Also this week has been the last sunset. After rising at 12PM on Friday and setting at 1:40PM, it's now below the horizon until the 19th of August. We've still got reasonable light levels outside for a few hours in the middle of the day, but this will rapidly draw to a close over the coming few weeks after which time it'll be dark all day. I'm already getting depressed about it even though I've done the winter thing twice before, so know exactly what to expect.

    The ANZAC commemoration yesterday morning was nice too. We did the usual thing of the 10AM dawn service at the flagpole, accompanied by around 30 American visitors; followed by morning tea with fresh ANZAC biscuits.

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    The ANZAC dawn service at the Scott Base flagpole at 10AM yesterday.

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    It's unusual to have any military personnel here over winter, but we happen to have Corporal Ben Armstrong who is with us this winter. So as the sole NZ Defence Force representative, he was on flag lowering duty.

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    A nice mid-day shot of Mt Erebus from Becky, taken late last week.

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    The same thing as above, taken a week earlier by Steve Perry. He's part of the McMurdo Photography Club, along with a few other Scott Base members and this photo was a part of one of their photography assignments. Unfortunately I hate photography, but I do enjoy many of their photos.

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    Folks back home are often asking what projects I have in the works. Those who know me know that I usually have something interesting in the pipeline. For the last few weeks I've been working on embedded software and designing/building the associated hardware for a multiple tone CTCSS encoder-decoder, which is just finished this week. Should have the technical documentation finished tomorrow.

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    The CTCSS signalling decoder in operation in a Tait T800 radio module rack. The decoder identifies which site is transmitting into the linked radio network and only lets received audio through after it's deemed to be from a valid radio site. This will help to track down some of the ongoing interference problems which cause a few headaches each summer. Unfortunately with a combined network of radio channels spread over a very large area, it's almost impossible to find the source of the interference, so this newly completed project will help immensely with interference location.

  • 19/4/2015: The bad news is that the single April freight supply flight on the C-130 Hercules operated by the NZ Air Force has been delayed for five days in a row now due to a "mechanical fault". There seems to be a lot of important cargo riding on this flight for both the Americans and for the Field Centre construction work here at Scott Base, so needless to say, there's not a lot of nice things being said about the reliability of the NZ Air Force. It's now scheduled for tomorrow, but no-one is holding their breath.

    The good news is that the separate passenger flight on the Australian operated Airbus went like clockwork yesterday. Perhaps because it wasn't run by the NZ Air Force. It left Hobart and touched down at the Pegasus Airfield here on schedule at 12:17PM, then even left half an hour ahead of schedule at 1:30PM, destined for Christchurch. It was fairly busy going out with 48 passengers, which included nine from Scott Base. We didn't receive any new people from this flight, through the Americans had a dozen or so.

    So the departures yesterday have bought us from 28 to 19 on station, now it's feeling a lot more like winter. We're already missing some of the people who left, though everyone has breathed a collective sigh of relief that the onesie wearing NZ Defence Force crew have departed. Apparently the motivation and productivity of some of the Defence Force engineering team members on the Field Centre build project has been rapidly declining in recent weeks. One of the project staff members said yesterday that it was the most productive day they've had yet. For a start all his tools didn't keep disappearing throughout the day.

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    In the Scott Base locker room yesterday at 11AM everyone was there to wish farewell to the nine people leaving for Christchurch.

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    This was the sight at Pegasus Airfield yesterday afternoon not long after the Australian Airbus landed just after 12PM. For some reason this photo make it appear darker than it actually is. We still have sun above the horizon between 10:30AM and 3PM.

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    The Airbus taking off from the Pegasus ice runway at 1:30PM yesterday with 48 passengers on board, 9 of them from Scott Base.

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    A couple of my work photos from the week; we have some long term storage containers outside, a few minutes walk up the hill behind Scott Base. On walking back from the containers I saw the nice sunset just after 3PM and remembered I had the camera in my pocket.

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    Facing 180 degrees from the above photo is the view of the wind farm and Crater Hill.

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    While I managed to avoid the Scott Base annual mini golf last Sunday, here are some photos of some of the holes that were set up around the place. Above, Kate gives the Hatherton Lab fake volcano and astro turf course a whirl. Personally I think it would have been much more fun with a real volcano; Mt Erebus is just out the back door.

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    Kate seems to be done with the fake volcano now. She's now unleashing her frustrations on the Q-Hut ramp obstacle course. Which would probably be easier with much less crap deliberately piled in the way.

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    This is the Observation Hill Cross with the new protective cover that was fitted to it last month. The memorial cross is in need of some tender loving care after being weather beaten for just over 100 years. More comments on this on last month's page.

  • 12/4/2015: The uncommon event of April flights is less than a week away, with a cargo C130 flight next Wednesday and the Australian Airbus scheduled for passenger movement on Saturday; all weather dependant of course. Fortunately the weather has been settled, but bitterly cold. No, really; who would have expected that from being in Antarctica?! Though working outside yesterday in 20 knots of wind and an ambient temperature of -33C was certainly less than pleasant.

    But the idea of winter flights every six weeks certainly makes my job easier. Instead of having to wait five months for any urgent parts you might happen to need, delivery is possible in a third of that time. Around 12 people from Scott Base are leaving next week, reducing our numbers to 19-ish. Most of the people departing are the NZ Army Light Engineering Team, who were tasked with the hangar floor replacement and helping out with the field centre remodelling work. Some of them are excellent workers. And some of them like to wear onesies (the single-piece jump-suits you'd expect small children to wear), silly wigs and hats, and play these weird push-up games all day, much to the annoyance of the construction staff. Though apparently "it's the Army way". Oh dear. After observing this, one thing is certain - if New Zealand does actually ever go to war, we're boned. Enemy forces would surely make short work of these onesie wearing weirdoes.

    Today happens to be the annual Scott Base mini-golf day. And unfortunately I don't like golf unless the balls were to be replaced by either kangaroos or penguins, though apparently we're not allowed to do that. Plus it's almost a certainly that everyone is going to dress up stupidly and look stupid. Instead, a trip to McMurdo's lounge bar might be in order to help preserve what little remains of my sanity.

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    The field centre remodelling work is making surprisingly good progress. Work over the last few weeks has included the installation of new windows to let ambient light into the new work spaces which are being constructed at present.

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    Other work in the field centre has included expanding the existing fire sprinklers into the new work areas and converting the system from an air-pressurised dry system to a wet system. Originally it was dry because no-one really knew how the building would get used and water in the sprinkler pipes would freeze if the inside of the building got cold. As it turns out, it's warm all of the time, so the system is being turned into water on demand sprinklers, the same as the rest of Scott Base. During the filling of the pipes with water, someone had accidentally left a drain valve open, which just happened to be in the potato store. Around 60 litres of water drained over the potatoes, which had to be spread out to dry to prevent our year's supply of potatoes from spoiling.

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    The JASART (Joint Antarctic Search And Rescue Team) run regular training sessions to develop new skills. The team is made up of people in 'regular' jobs from both Scott Base and McMurdo, and most of them have little or no previous experience of such things, hence the regular training sessions. Unfortunately these means of 'developing experience' has in the past resulted in these guys needing to be rescued when a training exercise goes pear shaped. Thanks to Becky for this photo and the one below.

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    Allen at work in the McMurdo Station fresh water plant. They use reverse osmosis to produce fresh water from sea water, the same as Scott Base does. They just do it on a much bigger scale.

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    On a weekly visit to the McMurdo Station Store, we often buy a case of decent American beer. US$32 for a box of 24 bottles of Fat Tyre amber ale or Sierra Nevada pale ale. They also carry a general range of souvenirs, clothing, snack food and bathroom supplies.

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    Craig and Pat from McMurdo volunteering to cook at the Gallagher's pub burger bar on Wednesday night. They make delicious burgers to order, for the price of a few tipping dollars.

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    Our temporary water engineer, Graeme, is leaving next week. He's saved a few of his favourite beers, Old Chub, for some special occasions. They don't have any more of this strong 8% beer at McMurdo this year, so any remaining cans are in short supply.

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    A few people back at home have been asking what projects I've been working on lately. At present I'm working on a multiple tone CTCSS decoder-encoder which will identify which radio site is transmitting into the linked VHF network in order to help find and fix interference problems in summer, plus prevent the Communications Operators from hearing unwanted noise. The project is a combination of analogue audio filters, zero crossing detectors and a microcontroller to perform measurement and timing of the sub-audible tone signalling. At present it just looks like a messy bunch of wires and things, which is a typical early stage of any electronics development.

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    YAGPA - Yet Another Group Photo Attempt. "It wasn't as good as the hangar group photo because everyone's faces are shaded because the sunlight is coming from behind!" Hmmm... three available options: 1. Take it in a different place, 2. Take it at a different time, 3. Shift the earth or sun. Just whatever happens to be easiest. We've still got plenty of sunlight over the day, sunrise today at 9:30AM and setting at 4:20PM.

  • 5/4/2015: Easter Sunday and being the first weekend of the month, it's a long (2-day) weekend. Unlike the rest of New Zealand, Easter Friday and Monday are just regular work days at Scott Base. We usually get Christmas Day and New Year's Day off and that's about it. But I think public holidays worked are paid at time and a half, so at least there's some financial gain to be had.

    The 2-day weekend couldn't have come at a better time. Despite there still being plenty of daylight left (sunrise at 9:30AM, set at 6:30PM), a lot of people are on station are feeling tired and over-worked.

    McMurdo Station has done a great job on the recreation front yet again with a range of activities over Easter. Including the Carpenters' Workshop party on Friday night, Horse Shoe Competition on Saturday, plus Burrito bar this afternoon in the pub which sounds like an interesting thing for a Sunday lunch - I think I'll head over shortly.

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    Lovely sunrises and sunsets at this time of the year - though I don't have photos of them. But here's an evening shot of Mt Erebus with the setting sun giving the volcano and steam plume a nice shade of colour.

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    Wednesday after work was the "hangar floor finished celebration barbeque". The unheated building is normally cold and miserable at the best of times, but the beers and BBQ exceeded all my expectations. A pity that the bingo night in the bar afterwards didn't meet any of my expectations, other than my suspicions that bingo should be exclusively reserved for old ladies.

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    Kate and Becky walking up the main street of McMurdo yesterday. Walking into the head-on strong wind at -30C was actually painful despite being well wrapped up. You get an instant "ice cream headache" and it feels as though you're getting knifed in the face.

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    Being unsure exactly what a horse shoe throwing tournament involved, I went along with Graeme and Lex to check it out. Of course the free beers provided by the crew of the McMurdo VMF (Vehicle Maintenance Facility) was an added incentive.

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    The VMF workshop floor was transformed into the horse shoe pitch with the addition of four purpose built and obviously well used steel bunkers containing a central post/stake and filled with a base of gravel. The game is relatively simple: a team of two play against an opposing team by throwing two horse shoes at a time - if the shoe goes around the post it's three points, if the shoe lands within one shoe width of the post, it's one point. The first team to 15 points wins that round and the winning team goes on towards the final knockout championship.

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    An associated hazard of the game is that if the throw is not accurate, then the horse shoe can ricochet off the edge of the steel bunker and fly into people and objects, or if the thrower is a little bit liquored, the throws can often miss the bunker completely. Hence you need to keep a sharp eye out, ready to dodge incoming horse shoe projectiles. The windows of Ivan the Terra Bus, in the workshop for maintenance, have been covered with plywood and cardboard to prevent damage from rouge flying horse shows.

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    If two opponent's horse shoes are a similar distance to the post, sometimes they need to be measured to decide who gets the point.

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    The VMF crew also showed off their new charcoal barbeque, built over summer out of an old propane tank. Truly a marvel to behold; if it's one thing Americans excel at, it's barbequing. Some delicious cheese burgers and sausages on the grill.

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    Moose, the McMurdo (power) linesman, gives thumbs-up approval of his double decker Mooseburger.

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    Hooper, what are you doing with that ale can, Hooper?