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

Anthony-ScottBase-small.jpg (10124 bytes)
August 2013
  • 25/8/2013: Was nice to receive a number of parts this week from the freight processing following the two mid-winter flights last week. My "items to be repaired" shelf is now looking fairly bare, which is a good thing of course. The focus is now on the next three flights in the first week of September. This is an unusual occurrence as the winter flights are usually carried out around mid-August. For the first time this year these flights are more spread out. We've got five people arriving on the first flight on Sunday, three of whom are only visiting for a few days.

    Next Sunday is also the leaving date for a few McMurdo personnel, including Harry, the harmonica player in our band. We're planning to perform some kind of music party at Gallagher's Bar at McMurdo next Saturday as a kind of final send-off for Harry and a few others. There's a collection of new songs on the list I'm not familiar with, so I've got a sizable practice session with my American band members this afternoon to try and learn all of the new material before the performance in six days. Hopefully it's only some simple guitar parts for me to learn if I can pawn off the vocalist work onto someone else!

    First_sunrise_20-8-13.JPG (77783 bytes)
    Another event this week was the first sunrise. Although the sun is not yet visible from Scott Base for a few more days before it rises above the nearby hills, Tim took this photo at 1:45PM on Tuesday the 20th from Arrival Heights. The sun was above the horizon for just a few minutes, though every day from now the sky will continue to get brighter for longer until the final sunset around the 20th of October.

    Nacreous_cloudsA_18-8-13.JPG (65900 bytes)
    Last Sunday around 4PM we were treated to a truly spectacular display of polar stratospheric clouds, also known as nacreous clouds. These colourful clouds only occur at certain colder times of the year in polar regions when clouds form in the usually dry polar stratosphere at altitudes of between 15 and 25km.

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    Another view of the nacreous clouds above Crater Hill, the Scott Base field centre to the right.

    Tim-weather_forecast_walk.JPG (114276 bytes)
    Every day at 9AM Tim the Hobbit walks out to the old mechanical weather recording instruments to record daily temperatures, air pressure, humidity and cloud cover.

    Hatherton_lab_rear.JPG (95608 bytes)
    And this is the lair of the Hobbit, officially known as the Hatherton Lab. Yes, he does have unusually hairy feet.

    Tim-MF_RADAR_transmitter_hut.JPG (112490 bytes)
    Yesterday I was helping Tim with a repair job on the 2.9MHz pulse transmitter, part of a long-term science experiment. The transmitter hut is just outside Scott Base and transmits short bursts of radio energy skyward which is reflected off the upper atmosphere and received at a separate receiver site at Arrival Heights, around 5km away. The longer the time between the transmitter pulse launch and when the receiver detects the pulse; the higher the reflection point in the atmosphere.

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    Locating and replacing the faulty RF driver valve from within the 2.9MHz pulse transmitter.

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    Run-up and testing the transmitter after the defective valve was replaced with a new one.

  • 18/8/2013: The first of the winter flights on Thursday provided a welcome break from the repetitive dark days. Two of the AHT conservators left on schedule on the C17 flight that departed Christchurch at 12PM, arrived here at 5PM then departed for Christchurch by 7PM. The flight was a 'freebie' for the US Antarctic Programme as originally they didn't have the budget available to run the costly mid-winter flights, so these were provided by the US Air Force as a night vision goggles landing training mission. It all went very smoothly and exactly to schedule. So as of Friday morning, we've had tomatoes on toast for the first time in about five months, plus fresh bananas, pineapple, melon and some vegetables. Of course this has provided a huge morale boost to the 13 of us left on station.

    The second of the two mid-winter flights was due yesterday but was postponed due to the nasty forecast yesterday. This had also forecasted low visibility and strong winds for today, though todays's forecast reports something entirely different from the prediction 24 hours ago. So this cargo only flight, also done as part of US Air Force training, is expected sometime this evening.

    The forecast also put a halt on a Cape Evans day trip that some of our base staff were due to visit today. Even if the weather did turn out to be nice today (it's currently clear, 20kts of wind and -20C), we're providing temporary fire crew staff to McMurdo during the aircraft movements. They need to have a handful of fire fighters at the Pegasus Airfield in case of an incident, which leaves them short for fire crew cover at McMurdo. So a couple of our guys are on loan to the Americans for half a day, which then leaves us a little bit short handed, meaning only a few people can leave Scott Base in order to maintain our minimum fire crew numbers here. It's all a bit tricky.

    Chiller-BeforeWinfly.jpg (45017 bytes)
    The photos this week are all from Damian, our chef. The Antarctica NZ media person wanted before and after photos of our fresh food chiller following the small fresh food delivery on Thursday night. Here's what it looked like beforehand, plenty of cream and oiled eggs left.

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    And here's what it looked like afterwards, a few grey tubs of fruit and vegetables. Perhaps not quite as dramatic as the media person in Christchurch was expecting?

    Dark_view_from_library.JPG (101308 bytes)
    The Scott Base library, which looks over the rest of the base, is a good viewing spot if there's something to see. In this case you can see the early morning sun below the horizon; Mt Terror in the centre, Mt Erebus to the left. The first sunrise is supposed to be at noon tomorrow. Apparently some people are doing a special trip out to the airfield to see the sunrise. Hmmm, might stay and get some work done myself, pretty sure that's what I get paid to do.

    Stop_sign_McMurdo.JPG (140973 bytes)
    A stop sign near McMurdo Station on the corner of the main fuel store and the Scott Base Road. You wouldn't normally expect to see road signs in such an isolated place, though in summer the roads are relatively busy. It's the time of the year where it's hard to get decent or interesting photos, hence I stole this one of Damian's, and the one below, from the public network drive.

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    Scott Base under a decent full moon; the camera's long exposure exaggerating the ambient light levels. White Island clearly visible in the distance on the ice shelf.

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    Mid-day at the wind farm during the week; the Antarctic mainland visible on the horizon about 70km away.

  • 12/8/2013: The two main subjects on everyone's minds recently is the rapid return of daylight and the mid-winter flights arriving on Thursday this week. While the first official sunrise is still a week away, it's nearly full daylight for an hour or two in the middle of the day. It's a lot easier to do the odd job outside when you can see where you're going; the return of the light is also brightening peoples' moods.

    The winter flights, known as Winfly, will bring us highly desired fresh food, parts to complete various jobs and some mail. Two of the AHT conservators are also leaving in just three days, a sure sign that winter is rapidly coming to an end.

    Late_morning_sun_over_MtTerror.JPG (86775 bytes)
    Late morning and early afternoon features some magnificent colours and cloud patterns in the sky, such this skyline seen over Mt Terror.

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    The mid-day moon seen over the silhouette of Mt Erebus.

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    A red sky at noon last Friday over Mt Erebus and Mt Terror.

    Pressure_ridges_11-8-13.JPG (86901 bytes)
    Now that the sea ice has become thick enough to safely walk on, the pressure ridges a few minutes walk from Scott Base are now open for a recreational walk.

    Winter_over_photo.jpg (615862 bytes)
    The winter-over photo for the public display wall of Scott Base, always a subject for hot debate, has finally reached a point where everyone is either happy with it, or sick of arguing about it. Here's the final draft.

    Bridging_ice_crack.JPG (124700 bytes)
    Late last week the Heritage Trust conservators made a trip to Cape Evans to see how Captain Scott's historic hut has fared over winter. This involves a half-day trip in a Hagglund over the sea ice. The ice has many cracks caused by the natural tidal forces on it. The larger cracks are drilled and carefully inspected to gauge the thickness of the sea ice either side of the crack. If it's less than 70cm thick, aluminium bridges are laid over the crack so that the vehicle can cross safely. Thanks to Molly for this photo and the three below.

    Bridge_crossing_Hagglund.JPG (113607 bytes)
    The Hagglund carefully crosses the temporary bridge over the crack in the sea ice. There's well over 100m of water just below this ice.

    Erebus_ice_tounge_bergs.JPG (97420 bytes)
    This iceberg is thought to be a very small chunk of the Erebus Ice Tongue that broke off during the summer during the annual melting of the sea ice. The berg will be trapped in position until the sea ice melts again in January.

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    Despite the expected snow drifts, Captain Scott's hut at Cape Evans still appears to be in good condition for its age, over 100 years.

  • 4/8/2013: We're in the final long weekend, two days off work, for the remainder of the season. Essentially the closest thing we ever get to a holiday. It's come at a good time as the winter is certainly becoming long in the tooth with some of my Scott Base co-workers who are growing increasingly irritable, forgetful and unmotivated due to the constant darkness and monotony of work.

    This long weekend also comes with a number of interesting activities. The first is the annual Antarctic 48-hour film festival which is a competition open to every Antarctic base. There are two categories; the first is an open category where you can submit any short film (5 minutes) you've filmed in Antarctica. The second more interesting option is the 48-hour version where on the Friday afternoon, the organisers at McMurdo Station release a list of things that must appear in a 5-minute film. This year these were a Ping-Pong ball, a bathtub, a specific phrase spoken in French, the sound of someone sneezing and the Gingerbread Man as a character. Obviously it takes a lot of time and dedication to plan something, film it and edit it in only two days. If you have loads of experience in filming and editing, then you stand a good chance to submit something of reasonable quality. From the few previous entries I've seen, a majority of them are pretty bad. Few of us, if any, at Scott Base have enough spare time or experience at film making, and the last thing you want to do on your final two days off is rush around making a movie. So I doubt if we'll be submitting anything.

    The other event this weekend was the "wedding" of a McMurdo couple; Bryon and "Sandwich" which occurred last night. They'd been planning it for months, which included some kind of pre-wedding party here on Friday night. A group of about 8 people from Scott Base attended the event at McMurdo last night which sounds as though it was more of a comedy show as opposed to a real wedding. After all, the 'priest' was someone who'd paid $20 on a website to receive some form of priest certificate, so anything but an authentic wedding. As boring as it sounds, I stayed here at Scott Base last night. There's a fire crew roster which means there needs to be at least seven people on base at all times in case of a fire alarm. Not that it worried me greatly; sometimes you just need to relax as opposed to spending many long nights with very boisterous drunk Americans.

    48hrFilmFestival.jpg (48429 bytes)
    The advertising poster for the annual Antarctic 48-hour film festival, which is filming around the continent as I write this. Except at Scott Base where we're enjoying a relaxed final 2-day weekend of our season. More information on the history of the film festival here.

    Hobbit_weather.JPG (113518 bytes)
    In my usual last minute dash to think of something interesting to photograph yesterday morning, I bumped into Tim the Hobbit/Science Technician at 9AM. Every morning he manually records the current weather conditions and 24-hour extremes of wind speed and temperature. You'd think this would be all measured electronically and automated, right? I thought so too. While much data is recorded electronically, the old mechanical instruments still in use from the 1950s record the same data in parallel and are manually read daily because "that's how we've always done it". Wow, wake up and smell the 21st century NIWA. Pretty sure people don't ride horse and carts through town anymore because that's the way it's always been done. Anyway, the Hobbit was sleepier than usual yesterday morning as he'd had a very late night from the Friday pre-wedding party, so he didn't appear overjoyed with me 'helping' to do the morning weather. He's dressed in the thermal 'Bunny Suit' as the mechanical recording temperature loggers are located outside about 100m away from Scott Base.

    Dave-baking.JPG (125533 bytes)
    On his days off, Dave, our power/fuels engineer, enjoys baking. He likes using recipes he knows from the good old Edmonds cookbook, which practically every home in NZ has a copy of. "Once you've modified the recipe for down here" he adds. Due to the very dry air, the biscuits tend to be hard, crumbly and dry, so modifications such as more butter helps the final product to be more as you'd expect.

    Molly-coffee.JPG (123989 bytes)
    Here's Molly using one of the most important pieces of equipment at Scott Base, the coffee machine. Thanks to Paula who sent me scans from a recent North and South NZ magazine short article featuring Molly at Scott Base this summer. Read the article here and here.

    Outside1_3-8-13.JPG (66607 bytes)
    Also on the plus side is the gradually increasing level of light at mid-day. This photo and the one below taken out a west-facing window at around 1PM yesterday. The extended exposure time of the camera makes it look slightly brighter than it actually is, though of course it's still much more exciting than the usual pitch black scenery we've been accustomed to since May. The first official sunrise for the new season is the 19th of August, a little over two weeks away.

    Outside2_3-8-13.JPG (95152 bytes)
    Another view from the same window, Crater Hill clearly visible on the ridge line and the three wind turbines at T-Site to the left. Turbines #1 and #3 have red lights on top.