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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December 2012
  • 30/12/12: Into the last two remaining days of 2012 and we're fortunate enough to have three days off work. There has been a delay in visiting science staff departing as the ice runway is too soft to land wheeled aircraft. We've had daily temperatures upwards of +5 degrees Celsius, so I'm hardly surprised the ice shelf is turning to slush. So for now, they're using Hercules aircraft fitted with skis to use the runway.

    A late flight last night and another that left this morning has returned passenger movements to just about normal. Not many visitors on base just now. About half of the Scott Base staff are away on an overnight camping trip to Black Island, leaving a few of us skeleton staff here who are stuck on fire crew.

    McMurdo Station is holding their annual Ice Stock outdoor live music party that runs from 4PM on new year's eve to 1AM on new year's day. Looking forward to that as there's always a great range of music.

    Other than that, it's just three days off work. The people still here on base tend to relax by reading, watching movies and going for local walks if they're not stuck on fire crew. I'll probably work on some guitar music over the next few days.

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    Mt Erebus on a nice day with the ice road heading north to the ski field (not visible, in the centre of the photo) and various other destinations, including the Pegasus airfield.

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    Speaking of the ski field, it opened on Christmas day. The snow was soft and fun. Coupled with beautiful shorts and T-shirt weather it was a really enjoyable morning out.

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    A photo from the base of the ski field, with a large number of Hagglunds for some reason. The rope tow is about 300m long with an elevation of some 90m. It's powered by a three phase generator (orange box on the sled) that drives an electric motor in the tow container (left hand green container).

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    They ran the annual summer polar plunge yesterday, which involves several people spending several days cutting a hole in the sea ice and installing a ladder. Then the participants climb down the ladder into the -1.8C water for a few seconds then get out. Not really my cup of tea, I went and found something more productive to do instead.

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    It looks as though the Americans have made good progress on their new ice pier, which is the large rectangular brown thing in the centre of the photo. It's a large chunk of floating ice, 5-10m thick that the fuels re-supply ship and container ship moor to when they arrive in February.

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    I've had a few jobs up Crater Hill recently at our local radio communications site, mainly improvements and tidy-ups. Here's the view from the top at 300m. White Island is visible in the distance, the wind farm in the foreground and Scott Base just visible on the far left.

  • 24/12/12: Christmas Eve as I write this, we're into day one of our two-day holiday. We celebrated with a delicious Christmas lunch yesterday followed by the annual Secret Santa. A few weeks before hand, everyone drew a name at random then had to make some kind of gift for under $20. It was actually a lot of fun and it was surprising how much effort and good ideas went into the secret gifts.

    The annual Scott Base skirt party was also held last Saturday night. Decided to give it a miss this year, too many transvestites for my liking! Looking through the many embarrassing photos from the night, it was probably a wise decision to relax with a few other homophobes and spend the night with some great music videos instead.

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    Yesterday's Christmas lunch was truly a marvel to behold. We were spoilt with a fine selection of baked ham, salmon, new potatoes, Cesar salad and a wide range of deserts.

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    After the dinner, Santa made a surprise visit. In actual fact the real Santa couldn't make it because he didn't have a permit to enter the area and for some reason the reindeer don't like the climate of Antarctica even though they're quite at home at the North Pole in the Arctic. Somehow they convinced me to play the part of Santa, which I tried to explain would be a bad thing as I'd say sarcastic and generally inappropriate things. Although that's what they wanted, so it all turned out especially well thanks to the help of my two lovely elves.

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    My elf was kind enough to point out that Santa wasn't able to see due to some critical beard issues. Santa is clearly in need of another roll of purple low-tack masking tape.

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    Someone even made a Secret Santa gift for dear old Santa. However did they know of my passions for dark beer and pork crackle? Genius!

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    Sniks make such a fine product, they deserve some free advertising. Buy a pack from New World or any other good retailer near you today.

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    The least said about the annual skirt party, the better. This is one of the many horrific photos I saw; the decision to instead relax over a few choice music videos was the better choice.

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    And we even managed to get everyone together in one place for long enough for a summer staff photo. I'm on the right hand side in the blue shirt. None of that conformist zipped-up jacket nonsense for me.

  • 16/12/12: We're rapidly approaching that point where a lot of people are starting to mentally check out for the year. With the approach of Christmas and the 2-day holiday, some people seem to struggle to pull together a full day of work, or make an especially half-arsed job at best. The same thing happens every year, so from experience it'll get even worse towards Christmas, everyone will be OK for a few weeks after New Years then will rapidly begin to check out towards the end of the January. Most of the summer staff will leave late February, so many of them have only two months left here.

    Day-to-day work in the communications department that I look after is much quieter than last year, which is a good thing as I can work on planning and design for winter projects. I've still got a couple of months to organise most of what I need for winter.

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    With the warm summer temperatures as high as +4C some days, the sea ice at the front of Scott Base is getting pretty slushy with many melt pools of water forming. The seals love it. Thanks to Ray for the photo.

    Wastewater_filter_installation.jpg (98030 bytes)
    During the week, the Americans helped us out with their crane and loader for the installation of a new waste water processing machine. At present the waste water processing plant uses a centrifuge to remove suspended solids in the waste water. Solids extracted are returned to NZ and the treated water is returned to the ocean. This new machine performs filtering and bagging and will replace the troublesome centrifuge.

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    During the week, Ray had another trip to the hut at Cape Bird to investigate a problem they'd been having. The remote hut is solar powered with a 24V DC system that runs a 230V AC inverter. A smaller separate 12V system supplies the communications equipment. Turns out that sometime last year, someone had installed a new diesel heater with a 12V fan, but the constant load of the fan was many times more than the solar charging capacity, hence the batteries would go flat and they'd have no communications out there.

  • 9/12/12: A bulk of my week has been spent tidying network things up from Tuesday night. The satellite bearer from Scott Base that carries all telephone and data traffic received an upgrade from 1024kbit/sec to 1536kb/sec in order to transport live video for TV coverage of the Prime Minister's visit to Scott Base in early 2013. The upgrade work sounded simple enough, but the network is complex in that there are multiple data streams that run through many different bits of equipment at both Scott Base and around New Zealand. There was a lot of reconfiguration required by many different people. In the process, a few different teams made the most of the network downtime to change out a few other bits of equipment. To cut a long story short, there ended up being five new problems, including some faulty equipment. So at long last we've finally narrowed down all of the issues and I'm no longer getting interrupted by base staff complaining that their telephone calls keep dropping.

    Ever see that ad on TV in New Zealand where they had some guy telling some extremely boring story from work and the ad ended with "Join the NZ Police and get some real work stories". Yeah, sounds like my week, sorry for the boring work story.

    Just noticed that it's barely two weeks to go until Christmas. Really must finish that Christmas shopping. Not that it's a big effort. I've got one shop to choose from and it involves less than 10 seconds walking to get there.

    Meanwhile, temperatures continue to soar as we roll towards the middle of summer. We peaked at +4 degrees C this week. It's Beautiful working outside these days.

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    I've been mostly stuck inside for ages, so it was time to find an outside job to make the most of the nice weather during the week; a routine inspection of the fibre optic and power cable to our satellite station. The photo above is the view west from our satellite station to the Antarctic mainland some 50km away.

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    Also did a bit of planning work for next month at the American's "Building 70" communications building, the wind farm visible in the background. Yeah, if you think it's messy on the outside, wait until you see inside... No I'm not going to show it as there might be little kids looking at this and I don't want to mentally scar them for life. In case you're wondering, the Americans leave the outside light on even though we have 24hr daylight just in case we have a surprise solar eclipse. I guess you never know when those sneaky buggers will creep up!

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    Here's Molly waving at me from one of the wind turbines. Or is he flipping me off? Hard to tell when he's got gloves on.

    Scott_Base-Sign_removed.jpg (99085 bytes)
    A surprising political hot potato of the month has been the Scott Base sign, see here about three quarters of the way down the page. The short version is that there's an organisation called CCAMLR which is made up of various nations and they're trying to prevent commercial fishing in the Ross Sea. This failed last week when Russia and China refused to sign the agreement against commercial fishing here. So by coincidence or not, the Russians decided to have a "random inspection" of Ross Island, as they're allowed to do as per the Antarctic Treaty. They protested that the sign needs to be taken down as it incorrectly states Scott Base as being the capital of Ross Island. So the photo above is all that's left of the Scott Base sign. I'm sure visitors will be equally as attracted by the "Danger: high voltage cable below" sign. Or not.

    Hole_for_carving.jpg (129586 bytes)
    While on the subject of sign chaos, the main Scott Base sign seemingly no longer cuts the mustard either. As part of the Prime Minister's visit, a new sign that reflects the Maori culture of Scott Base will replace the existing sign of many years and a large totem pole type of carving will be installed. The photo above is of Joe trying to dig a hole through frozen ground to prepare for the new totem pole thingy.

  • 2/12/12: With the departure of singer/songwriter Don McGlashan from The Muttonbirds on Friday along with some of the longer term science events people who have been here since September, the base is temporarily emptying out slightly in a sad kind of way. A few of the Antarctica NZ management staff are having a bit of a swap around between Christchurch and Scott Base. Partially so everyone has a bit of work rotation and a change of scenery. I always wonder how they work out who is going to spend Christmas here at Scott Base. In many ways it's really nice as you have a couple of days off work and there's none of that annoying commercial advertising overload that you have in the real world. On a downside, the separation is somewhat harder for those with families back home in NZ. We're having Monday the 24th and Tuesday the 25th off work, so that'll be nice. One of the few public holidays observed here.

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    My highlight of the week, second to Don McGlashan's mini-concert in the bar was a walk around the pressure ridges on evening on a warm and windless night. The third highlight of the week was a live telephone interview on our radio station with musician Tony Hill of a Christchurch band, The Triphonics. They kindly sent me some new music from their upcoming album release for our radio station.

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    After the pressure ridges walk, I went on a random photo mission. The one above is of a Pisten Bully 100 belonging to some Americans who were visiting Scott Base.

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    Here are our two electricians, Molly (left) and Ray whom I spotted walking down the main corridor.

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    One of my after work projects has been doing something about my lack of guitar amplifier situation. I resurrected and rebuilt an old public address system amplifier from the rubbish bin which is now a multi-channel amplifier for our work-in-progress band.

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    Unusual wildlife photo of the week: Americans in the pressure ridges. They're only allowed to visit the ridges on specially guided tour groups while Scott Base people can visit them anytime. It was a beautiful shorts and T-shirt evening of -5 degrees C, yet the Americans still wore their extreme weather clothing.