Amiga Technical Resource

Working in Antarctica

On the 30th of August 2010 I began a new role of telecommunications technician for Scott Base, Antarctica NZ, Telecom NZ and Downer Engineering. It began with a tightly packed four weeks of a variety of training before flying south to the ice on the 30th of September. The contract length of the position is around 13 months, hence it is known as 'wintering over'.

Below is a blog 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 2012-2013, 2014-2015 and 2016 seasons are also available.

Select month to view:
October 2010 November 2010 December 2010 January 2011 February 2011 March 2011 April 2011 May 2011 June 2011 July 2011 August 2011 September 2011 October 2011

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December 2010
  • 31/12/10: Last day of the year, what happened to 2010? McMurdo Station held their annual "Icestock" event; an Antarctic version of Woodstock. A large collection of locally formed bands who performed for about 30 minutes each from around 7PM to after midnight. I went over for an hour or two and was impressed by the range of hidden talent in many of the bands, who played an interesting mixture of covers and originals. At -6 degrees C it was a bit nippy, but the party still raged on to the small hours of the morning. Following the Icestock visit, I was working behind the Scott Base bar serving drinks so welcomed the new year with the many Scott Base bar patrons.

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    Icestock 2010-2011 at McMurdo Station.

  • 26/12/10: We're all involved in the base fire crew, each of us on duty one week in every three. During this time if you want to go away from Scott Base, you need to find a substitute for your fire crew position. As you'd expect, everyone wanted some time away over Christmas. As I was on fire duty, it was tricky finding a fire substitute in order to get away for a break. At last I did, so was able to combine a bit of recreation with work and exercise. Our fibre optic cable route between Scott Base and the Satellite Earth Station, 5km away, needs to be inspected about every month for damage. It's a great walk on a nice day, and a good chance for photos as the warm temperatures melt a lot of the snow and ice. Air temperatures at the moment are typically -5 degrees C to +3.

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    The view over McMurdo Station on the way to our Satellite Earth Station. The ground is distinctly dry and dusty this time of year. It never rains here, so the only ground water is from the many rivers of ice melt water. The sea ice runway is in the background, it's been closed for a week or so now due to ice melt. The Willy's Field ice runway is now in use instead, though it's around 40 minutes away.

  • 25/12/10: Merry Christmas! We have Christmas Day and Boxing Day off as holidays, but as expected, there are always things to attend to. So it's more like a working holiday. Or a normal work day where you do a bit less than usual. The wind farm telemetry and control system stopped working, so ended up fixing that during Christmas. Our fresh Christmas food and supplies were due on the 24th on the C17 aircraft. But just as it was due to land on the sea ice, there was a mechnical problem which resulted in the aircraft turning around and going back to NZ. Our two chefs performed something of a miracle to produce one of the best Christmas eve dinners possible, even including fresh smoked salmon borrowed from McMurdo Station.

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    Here's our dining room during the Christmas eve dinner, 40 people in total. The chefs fully deserved Christmas day off, hence on the 25th it was help yourself to leftovers in case you weren't still completely stuffed from the overwhelmingly delicious dinner.

  • 21/12/10: It's work as usual as Christmas nears. One of the best things about being at Scott Base at this time of the year is that you're not subjected to a barrage of advertising from every angle. In fact other than the few decorations around the dining room, you'd almost forget that the festive season is on the horizon.

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    The Long Duration Balloon (see 4/12/10 below) launched today. Here's the view from the ground an hour or so after it was launched. The payload underneath weights about 3 tonnes and in this zoomed in view, the balloon diameter will be around 50 metres. Evenually expanding to over 150 metres as it climbs towards 12000m.

  • 19/12/10: Another one of those days off where you seem to end up working all day anyway. Everywhere you look there is something that needs doing, some tasks much more urgent than others. A number of the other engineering staff have been complaining that they've had little to do. For some of them at least, the novelty of living and working in Antarctica has worn off. Many of them have another nine months to go, so for their sake, I hope they can keep focused and motivated over winter. It turns out that Antarctica NZ have appointed me as the winter engineering supervisor, meaning I'll be project managing the engineering team, writing management reports, etc.

    Also of interest is I got married yesterday. Well, it was a fictitious wedding involving most of Scott Base where we had an hour to make it all happen. I was to be the impromptu groom and the bride was the lovely Stuart. Sickening. The wedding arrangement altered itself halfway through the ceremony because it turned out that Stu was as homophobic as I am, then I ended up getting taped to the flag pole outside Scott Base!

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    Cape Archer viewed in early December; sea ice meets the sea. A photo taken by Stu, one of the field trainers (and also my "bride") who is leaving tomorrow. The first of the summer staff to depart for the season. Hard to believe we've been here for 80 days already.

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    It's not often that all of the Scott Base staff are all in one place at one time. But thanks to some mammoth effort and good planning, we were able to co-ordinate a staff photo in the pressure ridges last Monday. I'm in the top left corner, standing up.

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    Here's me as the groom, sporting a blingly Flava Flav clock medallion.

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    ...and afterwards, being taped to the flag pole after a short ride in the wedding chariot (a Pisten Bully). If you were expecting to see lots of wedding photos, well, lets just say that there was a lot of guys wearing women's clothing. Again. Certainly brought back some unsavory memories of last month's skirt party.

  • 12/12/10: The ski field opened today, which is a short 15 minute Hagglund ride away from Scott Base. The area features a collection of ski and snowboard equipment rented for the summer from Snow 'N' Surf in Christchurch, plus a rope tow. The field is around 150 metres long, is very basic and un-challenging. However, it's great to get out for some simple fun and a bit of exercise. Nice day for it too, was up to a scorching +5 degrees C with little wind. Sunblock is important due to the level of UV radiation from the sun.

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    Ski field as seen from the bottom. On the left in the trailer is a generator that powers the electric motor in the green container, which drives the rope tow. You use "nut crackers" to attach yourself to the rope to get pulled up the hill. The snow is dry but quite icy on the upper section. Similar to mid-morning summer conditions on a New Zealand ski field.

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    Looking down the ski field from the top of the rope tow. There are no "features" on the field at all. Possibly a good thing considering that most of the people are beginners. If they had jumps and the likes, then there would no doubt be a mass of casualties.

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    The Americans like to do things differently. Instead of setting up a rope tow, they use a snow cat to drive people to the top of the ski field. One benefit is that they can go somewhat higher, but it's pretty slow to travel around in a snow cat.

  • 10/12/10: It's getting fairly quiet at Scott Base as there have been around 40 different people returning to New Zealand over the week. We've had a few science events people come back from camping in the field, returning to Scott Base as well which has picked up the pace of things. It seems as though the scientists are incredibly good at breaking things, which means I have the errm.... "pleasure" of working on their piece of crap instruments without any documentation or spare parts.

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    When this instrument isn't broken, it measures plants growing. In the case of Antarctica, the only plants we have are moss and lichen that grows on rocks. There's probably a very valid scientific reason why you'd want to travel to the far corners of the Earth to measure moss growing, but I don't know what that is. This instrument works by shining a light source onto the plant and then measuring how much light is reflected. Data is recorded onto a small memory card and can also be sent over satellite link via an Iridium modem.

  • 7/12/10: Had an interesting job working with NASA in the small hours of the morning. They finally had a day that was calm enough to lift the top off the kevlar radome to work on the antenna inside. Once the upgrade work on the antenna is complete, this Earth Station will be used to control satellites and receive telemetry data from weather satellites.

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    The radome with the top lifted off, the top is sitting on the ground on the right hand side of the picture.

  • 5/12/10: A stormy Sunday means it's a good day to write overdue web updates and get a few Christmas gifts sent off. A fairly quiet morning at Scott Base despite having 66 people on station at present. Everyone enjoyed the shared birthday party last night, in particular the freely supplied liquid refreshments.

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    The view through the quadrouple glazed window of my workshop this morning. It's only -8 degrees C, but the strong 30 knot winds cause poor visibility due to blowing snow. Definitely an inside day today.

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    Dave Dobbyn playing a bit of music in the Scott Base bar last night. Victoria, one of my co-workers, is in the centre playing bass guitar. A random American from McMurdo Station on the far right. Dave was also kind enough to let me play a few things on his guitar.

  • 4/12/10: Hard to believe it's only three weeks until Christmas! It's been another busy week with many interesting things happening. I met the CEO of NIWA (National Institute of Water and Air), the chief science advisor to the Prime Minister and Dave Dobbyn (the NZ singer/songwriter) who even shouted me a few beers. It ended up an eventful Saturday. Finished work early to go and have a look at the American LDB (Long Duration Balloon) project site. Plus there was a few birthdays to celebrate, including my room mate's 21st birthday and our engineering manager's birthday. Needless to say there was a good supply of liquid refreshments flowing over the bar. We even convinced Dave Dobbyn to play us a few songs in the bar; including Loyal, Slice of Heaven and Welcome Home. Everyone was very impressed, myself included. Dave even let me play a few songs on his guitar, which was a great experience.

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    This is the launching of a LDB (Long Duration Balloon). I stole this photo from the internet; the project is currently around two weeks away from launching. How it works is they have a giant helium filled balloon that lifts a large box of around 2.5 tonnes of scientific equipment, solar panels and batteries. The balloon floats around 12km above the ground for up to 40 days in the polar vortex winds. At this height the balloon expands to around 150 metres in diameter. Many different things are measured, from cosmic particles to emerging stars and solar systems. In summary, the balloon is a kind of poor man's space radio telescope satellite.

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    This is a view of one of the balloon "payloads" being prepared for flight. The cream coloured box at the top contains the instrumentation, the white frame supports the box and solar panels are mounted to it. The location of the balloon is tracked via GPS. When it's at a convenient place to come down, they remotely trigger a cutter that cuts the payload from the balloon, which is guided down to earth by a parachute. An aircraft is then sent to collect the payload and parachute while the balloon is usually lost forever under snow and ice.

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    The view outside the LDB complex, around 15 minutes drive over the sea ice from Scott Base. Around 80 people work on site, travelling to and from McMurdo Station every day. Essentially they're preparing everything for the balloon launch in around two weeks. As you can tell, it was a fairly stormy day when we visited the site. All of the buildings are on giant skids so that the buildings can easily be towed around the ice by bulldozer.

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    Looking back to Scott Base (hiding behind the orange container in the centre) from the LDB site. The red and white balls contain microwave linking antennas which point back to Crater Hill, the dark coloured hill above the grey shed on the right hand side.

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    It was the engineering manager's birthday, so in light of him getting the bulldozer stuck in the snow (see 12/11/10), we made him a birthday gift of our engineering team sitting on the same bulldozer. He seemed shocked that we were capable of actually organising anything as a group! That's me in the bottom row in the grey shirt.