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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August 2015
  • 30/8/2015: Finally, the end of an expectedly hectic week. The constant stormy weather over this week resulted in no aircraft movements until today. This was a mixed blessing for some of the nine people visiting Scott Base for a number of different jobs. Some people had all of their work finished in two days so would have been happy to get home on time. Others welcomed the unplanned extended stay in order to get more work done than expected.

    In summary, it's gone well enough. The four flooring specialists completed all of their vinyl laying work in just a few days, so spent the remainder of this week doing extra tidy-up jobs which never get done unless you have a bunch of specialists with excess time on their hands. The NIWA chaps performed repairs to their faulty instrument and were finished in a day.

    And after a week of forecasted storms and daily flight cancellations, this morning we've been rewarded with the first beautiful day in quite some time. The sky was clear and the temperature a near tropical -14C as we farewelled the nine visitors and four departing project staff at 8:30 this morning. A bittersweet moment, it'll be great for the place to revert to a quieter and calmer state with less people about, but I'll certainly miss a couple of the people leaving.

    Now the four week countdown to main body begins. There's much work to get done in a relatively short time before the new people arrive.

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    This was the scene in the Scott Base locker room at 8:30 this morning as we farewelled the 13 people leaving.

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    And there they go on the way to Pegasus airfield, hitching a ride in one of the American passenger vans.

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    The exterior of the carpenter's workshop following the week of stormy weather. Everything is covered in snow, which will all be gone in a few months when summer arrives.

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    There are more vehicles than there is indoor space to store them, so nearly everything has to bear the brunt of the winter weather. The snow piles into every available nook and cranny, filling up engine compartments and blowing into the vehicle interior though every available gap in the door seals.

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    Though the sun officially rose over a week ago, we've not seen any of it due to constant heavy cloud and snow. The view out the window this morning suggests we may be lucky enough to see that unfamiliar bright ball of light in the sky that has been eluding us since April.

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    And since I've been waiting all week for freight to arrive for the next major project in changing satellite equipment to a different type, I've been tackling a few other minor jobs I didn't expect to have time to complete; such as the design and build of this audio combining unit. It filters and sums audio from different radio channels so that emergency signalling from users in the field will be received and presented to the emergency signalling decoder. So that when the Comms Operators are more concerned with watching Faceb**k videos all day instead of responding to emergency calls on the radio, the people in the field now have a chance of actually getting a response when needed.

  • 23/8/2015: We've arrived at the annual 'Winfly' period; this word is a contraction of winter and flights. For years this period in August has been the only scheduled flights over winter, though this year has been the first of the six weekly scheduled flights, which has not been completely without a few issues along the way.

    Weather wise, August and September are challenging times of the year. Ironically enough, while the mid-winter months of June and July have the coldest average temperatures of around -30C, the weather seems more settled and predictable. August and September are renowned for surprise storms. This week has been no exception. The first of the Winfly flights were supposed to be on Thursday, though it was as if they'd somehow scheduled the flights to coincide perfectly with an approaching storm. As such, the flights have been delayed every day from Thursday until today, presenting constant challenges to the logistics coordinators, plus the people who need to reorganise hotel rooms for a couple of hundred Americans staying in Christchurch. Plus the people who need to clear the snow drifts from the Pegasus airfield and smoothly groom the 3-mile ice runway.

    As of now, one of the two first flights is in the air on the five hour flight from Christchurch to Pegasus airfield. We're expecting nine temporary people to arrive on the second flight today, who are all expecting to return on the final flight sometime next week after they've completed a number of jobs. They were expecting to be spending a week here at Scott Base; however the arrival date has crept forward in time, while the final return flight date to Christchurch seems to have gone unchanged. It's going to be a busy week ahead.

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    The first sunrise was technically this week as well, not that we saw much through the near constant cloud. The days are quickly becoming brighter, as shown by the sun behind Mt Terra Nova yesterday at 11AM.

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    One of my more significant jobs this week was commissioning the new Zetron M4010 dispatcher console. Actually, this unit is identical to the original unit that has been in service since the mid 1990s, only the labelling now looks one step up from the minimalist attempts of a gorilla mashing on the keyboard of a label tape machine. The other issue was that some of the keys were becoming a little worn and hard to press on the original unit, plus there was an ongoing risk that the communications operators would blow up the console by touching the unit before discharging static electricity build-up from themselves first, and there was nothing onsite to replace it and get the radio communications dispatch working again at short notice. Static electricity and sensitive electronics is an ongoing issue here. The low humidity means that static electricity build-up is much more than you'd experience back home. Meaning that people frequently forget to discharge themselves by touching nearby metalwork before touching electronics. After blowing up several of their own personal electronic items in this way, some people gradually learn. Others don't.

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    The Caterpillar 924K loader being defrosted in the vehicle workshop so that it's ready to unload some of the pallets of cargo that will be arriving on the flights over the next few days.

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    Keith the power/fuel engineer has been busy with the 6-month maintenance on the boilers this week. This involves cleaning the fire box, checking fuel pressure and calibrating the fuel/air mix for optimum combustion of the AN8 low temperature diesel.

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    Looking east over the Ross Ice shelf yesterday at 11AM, the vehicle hitching rail and the 'Koru Lounge' helicopter departure terminal in the foreground.

  • 16/8/2015: Despite our isolated location, we're generally well in touch with folks back home in New Zealand. Telephone and Email makes it fast and easy to communicate, unlike 25 years ago where there was one or two telephone lines provided by HF radio back to NZ, which you had to book several weeks in advance if you wanted to call someone back home.

    One downside of this ease of communications is that you're well aware of the many fun things that you're missing out on back in the real world. Just simple things such as going to a craft beer tasting, or Beervana which is on this weekend in Wellington, with 276 delicious beers on offer. It would be fair to conclude that I'd rather be there, as opposed to being stuck here dealing with someone else's yet another minimal effort in any task at hand.

    I'm often asking myself if it's really worth it. While the financial remuneration for the job is certainly nothing to rave home about, it's offset by the fact you have minimal expenses while here. For example, food, transport, accommodation and clothing are all provided, which amounts to something like NZ$12,000 per year; which then brings remuneration similar to what you'd expect back in NZ. But then factor in that you work 10 hour days for 6 days a week, plus being on call for 24 hours per day for 365 day a year without a break, plus many evenings of afterhours base chores that you're expected to do on top of the 60+ hour work week. Plus you're effectively imprisoned here and unable to enjoy any of the fun activities you'd take for granted back home. Would you consider working like this continuously for a year with what translates to a fairly average hourly rate at best? Am I simply insane for doing this? Well, obviously!

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    Each Saturday at 3:15PM we all group together in the dining room to discuss planning, coming events and safety topics such as it being cold outside and that the ice on the ground can be slippery. I'm not making any of this up! I can actually feel the life draining from me during these mundane meetings, which are followed by activities of getting everyone else to do a part of someone else's job that they don't want to do.

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    Kate and a bunch of helpers changing the batteries in the K131 sea ice probe data logger. How many people does it take to go out and change a battery? For reasons unknown, a lot.

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    The sea ice probe consists of a 2 metre long temperature sensor protruding into the sea ice with a data logger in a box. The antenna on the left side sends the collected data to a radio on Crater Hill, which is then sent to a computer at Scott Base. Replacing the battery only needs to occur once every few months and involves opening the lid of the box and moving the crocodile clips from the existing battery to the freshly charged one. For some reason this takes a great number of people and happens at surprisingly regular intervals. Meanwhile back at Scott Base, a small number of us actually have stuff to get done in order to avoid working 16 hour days.

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    On Friday a group of the Field Centre project staff who are leaving next week (and some of the staff who aren't leaving) took the day off for a trip to visit Captain Scott's old hut at Cape Evans. The route along the sea ice crosses various cracks, which need to be drilled in order to assess if it's thick enough for the Hagglund tracked vehicle to cross without the need to lay down the bridging platforms.

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    Scott's hut at Cape Evans at mid-day last Friday. We're only a few days away from the first sunrise. As these photos show, they nearly have full daylight out there already for an hour or two in the afternoon.

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    And the never-ending quest for group photos continues. This one taken yesterday in the new meeting room in the Field Centre that used to be the gymnasium. I'm the one on the far right, looking annoyed.

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    Followed immediately afterwards by a group photo in the new gymnasium area in the Field Centre, which used to be the field food store. I'm the one on the far right, looking even more annoyed.

  • 9/8/2015: At the end of every month I write a summary report of various activities, jobs and projects over the month. As you've got no hope of remembering what you did yesterday, let alone a month ago; every day I keep a list containing a short description of what I did for that day, such as writing reports. Looking at my list for this past week, it's been as busy as usual, but mind-numbingly boring, so I'm doing you a favour by sparing you the details.

    It's under two weeks until the WinFly (Winter Flight) period, which happens annually around the 20th of August. This year there are around five flights in total, which are delivering over 150 people to McMurdo Station as they're beginning a lot of science early this season. Scott Base will see a temporary influx of contractors to finish some of the more specialised Field Centre work, plus a few science folks, all of who will depart on the last WinFly flight, leaving us with around 15 people on station until the beginning of main body at the start of October.

    We have a weekly base meeting each Saturday, and I had to laugh when yesterday it was revealed (unsurprisingly) that the new wireless access points were used by several people, nearly exclusively, for looking at 'very naughty' websites. The IT department have set up this software which is supposed to prevent this sort of dodgy behaviour, but in reality, it prevents you from viewing things such as equipment manuals, component datasheets, telephone lists and other necessary work related information, but apparently it's no problem to browse the dodgy stuff. Great, sounds like an excellent use of money expanding the data circuit bandwidth to cater for the browsing of highly objectionable material. As leased data circuits over satellite are hideously expensive, you'd expect the IT department to more actively monitor and manage traffic, but as it's a no-blame culture, this kind of thing seems perfectly acceptable.

    "Open up the furnace door Bob, we got another tub of hundred dollar bills to throw in!"

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    I was touched (in a pleasant sort of non-Rolf Harris way) by this picture made by 5 year old Luke Hill. Hopefully the actual plane isn't made out of newspaper, but even if it was, it would still be significantly more reliable than anything owned/managed by the NZ Air Force. In fact I'm thinking of a military job that Luke would be better at than the existing people who do it.... Actually, make that jobs, I can't think of any military jobs that Luke wouldn't be better at. Except maybe surfing Facebook all day and wearing onesies, which are apparently key military activities. Yet more worthy use of taxpayers' money.

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    The mid-day almost daylight continues to brighten slightly each day. At 1PM there's enough light to see out over the sea ice pressure ridges.

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    Here's Steve, Pip and Dave performing the final edits on their Antarctic 48-hour film festival last Sunday. Yes, apparently it's compulsory to have some weird 'n' nasty beard if you're part of an Antarctic film making group. Their entry turned out better than I expected, perhaps a possible finalist in the competition. We saw a few of the other films entered from Japan and Russia last night. They ranged from not too bad to utterly dreadful. I had to stop watching and go do something less painful, such as counting all of the snowflakes on the Ross Ice Shelf.

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    Aside from more work as part of the Field Centre renovation project, I've spent nearly half the week developing software to automatically generate telephone toll call reports from the raw network data in order to help resolve ongoing issues with the billing system in Auckland. In case you're wondering, the software is written in the common powerful scripting language, Rexx. My development is done using the Cubic text editor under AmigaOS. I don't get provided with any development tools, so practically everything is done using tools I own personally.

  • 2/8/2015: Thankfully this is a 'long' 2-day weekend, marked by the first Saturday of the month. This has provided a much needed break from the monotony of work and sleepless nights over the past couple of weeks. Actually, the work has been going OK, it's just that six day weeks of 10-hour work days without breaks, including the fact that half of most evenings are spent washing dishes then working behind the bar, really grinds you down.

    Needless to say, it's been great to unwind for a couple of days. Though some of the others have opted to put a lot of time and effort into both organising and participating in the Antarctic 48-hour film festival. The short explanation of this is that there are around 20 different Antarctic winter-over bases participating in the film competition, which began on Saturday. So that filming didn't start ahead of schedule, the criteria are that the films must contain each of the four surprise elements, which have come from different bases. These are; a toilet, some peas (the food), a 'boinging' sound and the phrase "it's a very complicated algorithm". So they spent all of yesterday filming clips for this and are spending today editing it all together, I have no idea what the plot of this 5-minute movie is, though I've seen a few props about the place, including a snow woman, which I spotted in the drying room inside last night, slowly melting in front of a time lapse camera. One can only imagine....

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    Damon pictured above with the snow woman created as a prop or character for the Antarctic 48-hour film festival. They've used fruit to make the facial features.

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    Towing the snow woman inside to the drying room yesterday to gradually melt in front of the time lapse camera.

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    Meanwhile, the transcontinental darts games continue. Scott Base played the French station, Dumont d'Urville, last weekend via video conference. They also played against one of the German bases last night by telephone. This is the Scott Base team pictured above; from left to right is Damon, Darryn, Dave, Steve, Tim and Andy.

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    The administration area linkway is getting a repaint of the feature wall. It turns out that the dark green paint that was applied last year gets marked very easily. For some reason, some people like to drag their hands along the wall when walking by, which leaves long, annoying, wavy horizontal streaks. Personally I'd find it easier simply to solve the root cause of the problem and just shoot the people who do this, but they've instead decided to repaint the wall with a different type of paint in the same dark green colour.

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    And look who I met walking down the hallway; hello, it's Keith the power/fuels engineer. He has a high-rolling $5 bet going with his wife back in NZ that he can go the entire season without a haircut and only minor trimming of his very out of control whiskers. Just don't let this high staking gambler into the horse races!

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    Work wise, I've been up to my all-time favourite activity of re-doing previous jobs that have been done with the least amount of effort possible to the lowest possible standard. This telephone distribution frame in the Field Centre used to be a giant tangle of wires that was impossible to work with. I pulled it all out and installed this type-110 distribution frame, which for the first time ever, even includes state of the art features, such as labelling. I'd post a photo of what it looked like before, but I don't want to be responsible for viewers experiencing ongoing night terrors and the natural urge to gouge out one's own eyes in self-preservation.

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    Another of my jobs during the week was completing the termination of the new float charging system on the battery storage benches. The batteries in the bottom level are from our remote radio sites, which are only deployed in summer when there is sunlight to provide solar power. Prior to winter, the radio equipment and batteries are stored in the warm at Scott Base. The batteries now plug into this new float charging bench which maintains their level of charge over winter, also meaning they're immediately ready to go when summer rolls on.

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    Darryn the carpenter gives me the big thumbs up on seeing the new float charging system in the battery room all working perfectly first time. Darryn did the re-fit of the entire room, including building the new benches.

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    A couple of photos here from Josh Swanson; one of the two McMurdo power line maintenance men. He's right into photography and especially loves long exposure shots which exaggerate the stars in the dark daytime sky. This shot is of one of the various art sculptures around McMurdo Station, The Tin Man.

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    Another of Josh Swanson's arty photos, turns out that I'm the photo exhibit in this case. Photo taken at the 4th of July horse shoes tournament, which involved me throwing horse shoes across the American Vehicle Maintenance Facilty while everyone else screams and dives for cover.