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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December 2014
  • 26/12/2014: Having the last couple of days off has been a rare treat, it's great to kick back for once. Wednesday the 24th was the Christmas lunch/dinner at Scott Base and as usual the chefs put on a fantastic spread. Rare treats ranging from fancy cheeses to honey baked ham to baked salmon, not to mention the tasty deserts. We did the typical 'Secret Santa' thing where you get allocated a random name and you need to prepare a secret gift for them. The requirements were that the gift had to be valued at a minimum of $20 and had to be partially self-made. There was a surprising amount of time, effort and creativity that went into many of the gifts.

    Santa even made an early appearance to distribute the gifts. Or more to the point, I was asked to play the role of Santa again. It turns out I only get asked because apparently "on-one else can do it as inappropriately or as hilarious as you make it". Fortunately I'd consumed a bottle of Panhead Blacktop Oat Stout and Epic Hop Zombie beforehand (thanks Paula!), so was in the right mood to do so. Someone happened to open a Christmas cracker that contained a black plastic clip-on moustache, which ended up getting trimmed down. So I became what was probably Scott Base's first, and possibly the world's first Hitler Santa. For those who may be easily offended, it was a fascist Charlie Chaplin Santa with a bad German accent. As bad taste as it was, everyone loved it. The best thing about it was that Antarctica NZ is unlikely to publish photos of the event on their FascistBook page. Presumably because they have something against Charlie Chaplin. Excellent, I dislike social media with a passion.

    So Christmas day was a day off work, even for the chefs. As was today, Boxing Day. Back to work as usual tomorrow, not that the workload is overly high at present.

    Hitler_Santa.jpg (230080 bytes)
    Here's me as Hitler Santa (or fascist Charlie Chaplin Santa) with my three lovely elf helpers.

    SB_Christmas_dining_room.jpg (215343 bytes)
    The Scott Base dining room was festively decorated with fancy Christmas adornments and other treats.

    Christmas_day_snow.jpg (144683 bytes)
    It was also a white Christmas for us. The overcast day bought a fresh dusting of light snow. We had planned to open the ski field for Christmas day, but the flat light conditions would not have been ideal.

    Becky_Lego.jpg (120605 bytes)
    Becky received an Arctic themed Lego set. Despite being outside the recommended age criteria of 6-12 years, she threw caution to the wind and excitedly assembled the model helicopter and husky sled.

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    Today, Boxing Day, the cloud was clearing and the snow stopped falling, so we took a 15-minute trip in the Hagglund out to open the ski field.

    Ski_field_opening.jpg (85851 bytes)
    It wasn't as sunny as it could have been, but as they say, beggars cannot be choosers. It was still a great day for a bit of snowboarding, with superb snow conditions. Until the rope came off the bull wheel at the top of the rope tow, requiring a bit of effort to get it un-jammed and running again.

    Ski_field_BBQ.jpg (116306 bytes)
    Although the minor rope tow breakdown gave us an opportunity to fire up the barbeque for sausage and onion sandwiches for lunch.

  • 21/12/2014: We're into the final countdown to Christmas, just four days away. It quickly creeps up without noticing, which is easy to do without all of the constant advertising forced upon you back in the real world. So by comparison, Christmas in Antarctica is actually an enjoyable experience. It's also one of the two holidays we get during the year, the other being New Year's Day.

    It's also the time of the year where the science activities die down for a while. It'll ramp up again in early January, but until then my workload has been relatively light, I've even managed to clear the backlog of equipment repairs and get stuck into some of the "if you ever get a chance" jobs.

    The Americans also invited us to their Helicopter Workshop party last night; we were one of the five bands performing, which went well. Had plenty of good feedback from our live music set; the next which is at the Ice Stock outdoor live music festival at McMurdo Station in a couple of weeks.

    K108_view_from_Erebus.jpg (136287 bytes)
    One of the few remaining science events staying for Christmas is an event called K108, who are a team of international scientists creating a "magma map" of Mt Erebus, an active volcano 50km away on our back doorstep. This is the view from one of their many monitoring sites over the mountain.

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    This is Graham Hill, the event leader of K108. They set up dozens of these monitoring stations at specific sites all over Mt Erebus which are shifted every couple of weeks. The data they record is used to make a 3D internal map of the inside of the mountain to better understand what's happening inside the feisty volcano. As you can see, it's not too hard working outside on a sunny day at this time of the year where daily high temperatures are approaching 0 degrees C.

    Arrival_Heights_Lab_and_Erebus.jpg (105552 bytes)
    And just in case you can't get enough of Mt Erebus, here it is again. The brown peak in the foreground is First Crater at Arrival Heights, the Arrival Heights labs visible centre right.

    CraterHill_Ch4_new_cables.jpg (129601 bytes)
    Yet another of those jobs on the longer term to-do list was to address a few cabling jobs at our Crater Hill main radio site. If you happen to know anything about radio frequency transmission line theory, which most people don't, you'll know that the impedance seen at the input of the cable repeats at every half wavelength along the cable as the signal phase rotates through 180 degrees. Meaning to correctly match devices with complex impedances such as power amplifiers, circulators and band pass cavity filters; then precise cable lengths are important for impedance matching. Because as we've all known since kindergarten, maximum power transfer can only be achieved when the source and destination impedances are the same. So with a correctly engineered set of cables into this base station, the channel now has a measurable performance increase. Oh look, and for the first time in history, someone has even labelled the cables!

  • 14/12/2014: Finally finished the Christmas shopping, which isn't really hard because there's only one shop to select from, aside from the McMurdo shop, and of course there is a limited range of products available. Christmas gifts are essentially limited to clothing, glassware, thermal cups and the likes. And since we're having a big clean out of the Field Centre in preparation for the winter rebuild, you find all sorts of weird and wonderful things you didn't know you had, or will ever need. So some of the Christmas boxes have a few added 'bonuses' this year.

    Last night was the annual Scott Base skirt party night, a tradition started by Captain Scott over 100 years ago. I attended it once in 2010, the first year I was here, and that was more than enough for me. So last night I did the same sensible thing we did last year; went and watched some great music videos with a few others who weren't overly fond of the transvestite night either. So I thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

    A message for Lorraine and Graeme while I'm thinking about it. I tried calling you last night; as you'll recall it was a year to date we had the Crate Day in Hamilton when we were looking through your LP collection trying to find The Who and we called Alec in the Scott Base bar thinking he might have it. Anyway, you obviously weren't about, but Alec mentioned he hadn't even replied to your message asking if he was still alive or not. In answer to that; he may have been raped to death by the many transvestites in the bar last night. I did not envy his job.

    Sled_manhaul_race.jpg (58645 bytes)
    While I remember, here's a photo from the sled man-hauling race last Sunday. The winning team did the trip in 34 minutes; I think the course was around 5km long.

    Ob_Hill_skua.jpg (88720 bytes)
    Observation Hill in the foreground (right) and Mt Discovery in the back. If you look closely, you'll see an Antarctic Skua flying around looking for food. There are always plenty of these aggressive birds around over summer. They'll all disappear in a few months when it starts getting cold again. At present we're having typical daily highs of between -5 and -1C.

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    A photo of the wind farm I took during the week on the way to a job up on Crater Hill. The brown building and yellow power transformer in the foreground is one of the American's radio communications sites.

    T-Site_view_west.jpg (70740 bytes)
    Looking west from T-Site towards the Antarctic mainland.

    H3_crossing_crack.jpg (119577 bytes)
    It's also that time in the season where things have warmed to the point where the sea ice is getting mushy and the cracks are getting too wide to cross safely, closing most sea ice travel for the rest of the summer.
    In the photo above, Hagglund H3 is crossing using the portable bridges carried on the roof. You can clearly see open water in the crack.

  • 7/12/2014: The base is yet again filled to capacity with a number of NZ government people on site as invited visitors. Not sure what they're up to aside from a bit of a tour around.

    We also have a number of TV3 media people on site who had come down to film some work around the event that was due to take place at Cape Adare this season, which has since been put on hold due to logistical issues and difficulty in accessing the site due to weather. Since that wasn't happening anymore, they were looking around for other things to film. As it happens, there was a medium-profile science team in the Dry Valleys region drilling some permafrost core samples, so someone decided to fly them out there for some TV filming. I was out doing a job at our Crater Hill radio site yesterday and was listening to the increasingly frustrated conversation on the channel, which went something like:

    "The TV crew and reporters are due to land at your site in 60 minutes."

    "What TV crew?! We haven't been told anything about this!"

    "Oh yeah, change of plans, they want to film you drilling the ice cores."

    "But we packed up the drill yesterday..."

    So this drilling rig is a big complex device that is a fairly significant job to set up and pack away again for transport, not to mention that the science group were under the usual Antarctic time constraints of getting their work done.

    "Can you just set the drill back up now so they can film you drilling when they get out there?"

    Needless to say, the conversation started getting a bit ugly, too much for an 'open' radio channel, so they switched to satellite phone and continued the heated conversation with large audio delays and crappy speech quality, which is satellite telephone in a nutshell.

    Anyway, today (Sunday) they're doing this sled man-hauling race in several teams between Scott Base and McMurdo. I think there are teams of about 5 people each who manually haul a wooden sled loaded with weight along the sea ice road between McMurdo and Scott Base. A distance of about 5 kilometres or something which is supposed to take about 60 to 90 minutes. Instead of competing, I was going to spend the time on my one day of the week off to catch up on a few personal things. But as all four of the communications operators wanted to be part of the race, they asked me to work their job on my day off. So much for getting anything done today. Hence I'm bashing this out quickly before I'm due to start their afternoon shift in about 10 minutes....

    Erebus_plume.jpg (77406 bytes)
    A large plume of steam from the top of Mt Erebus, viewed from the pressure ridges last night.

    Pressure_ridges_dragon.jpg (82277 bytes)
    This is the ice dragon living in the pressure ridges. No, it's not actually a real dragon; it's just some ice formations that happens to look a bit like a dragon's head and tail from the right angle.

    Photographers_in_pressure_ridges.jpg (131070 bytes)
    While on the pressure ridges walk, we were joking how people are obsessed with taking photos of bits of ice. So we started taking photos of each other taking photos, so this is Brett, Ray and Becky being a bit silly.

    Seal_pup_getting_bigger.jpg (166192 bytes)
    The seal pup, probably about six weeks old now, continues to get bigger each day. I guess someday soon it'll go swimming.

    MattK_snow_clearing.jpg (194894 bytes)
    Here's Matt the plant operator from the NZ Army, moving snow using the new loader.

    BenA_Ob_Tube.jpg (186834 bytes)
    The McMurdo underwater observation tube was open for a few weeks and has just closed last Thursday. Here's Ben the communications operator climbing down for a look at the ocean life under the sea ice. The red structure on the left is a portable survival shelter on skis, colloquially known as an apple due to its shape and colour.

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    And this is what it looks like about five metres below the top surface of the sea ice, looking upwards. You can easily see the delicate ice crystals and some of the algae that grows under the ice, which is about two metres thick.

    BorchgrevinksHut-CapeAdare.jpg (236390 bytes)
    A photo from Tracey B from what was supposed to be the start of the Cape Adare event this year. Aside from the huge Adelie penguin colony there, one of the projects for the coming years is the conservation of Carsten Borchgrevink's historic hut. I'm out of time to write much about it, so read more about it here.