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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February 2011
  • 27/2/11: You know the drill by now; my one day of the week off which actually means lots more work. A visiting cruise ship arrived from New Zealand. Actually Russian ship Professor Khromov hired by a NZ cruise company and relabelled as The Spirit of Enderby anchored outside McMurdo Station and around 56 people came ashore via inflatable boats to tour McMurdo and Scott Base. I was the co-ordinator at this end and fortunately it all went smoothly. Afterwards they extended an invitation for Scott Base staff come aboard for an hour to see the ship.

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    Just noticed it's about the end of the month as well, so here's a nice picture of an Antarctic skua soaring above the broken sea ice out the front of Scott Base. I guess I could think of worse places to live.

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    The Professor Khromov outside McMurdo Station as The Spirit of Enderby. That's ice on the coast line in the foreground, not foam as you'd normally expect to see on a beach.

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    I was also given a personal tour of the ship's engine room by the company owner; certainly the highlight of the visit for me.

  • 26/2/11: This morning's view was of completely open ocean. The outgoing tide and wind had pushed away all of the broken sea ice, which had since floated away, along with some of NIWA's very expensive monitoring equipment. If anyone sees a giant chunk of ice with an orange thing on it, they might want to give NIWA a yell. The extent of the broken out ice has made the Americans very nervous about travel over the ice shelf out to the airfield, which is located around 30 minutes drive away on solid ice. A press release on it here.

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    That blue wiggly stuff on the right hand side isn't usually there. Or technically it's usually hidden under a thick layer of ice.

  • 25/2/11: A jaw-dropping view out the window this morning. Although Scott Base is located on the "coast" of an island, we always have a view of frozen sea ice as far as the eye can see. Today there was open water. The last time that this special event occurred was around 15 years ago. It was also the ideal backdrop for our winter staff photo, which I don't have a copy of at the moment. Fantastic day though, possibly my most enjoyable day here yet. Considering the choice of these stunning surroundings or living in Earthquakeville, I've finally come out better off.

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    Waiting for things to get organised for the staff photo. I'm second from the left. For those who know me, I'm also the one in shorts. It was a beautiful day, calm, sunny and a balmy -12 degrees C.

  • 24/2/11: The storm finally cleared and things began returning to normal. Still no sign of the missing Norwegian adventurers. Much shovelling of snow was in order to open some outside doors and it soon became apparent that the sea ice was breaking out at a rapid rate. We also had a number of small black and white visitors at Scott Base. No, not midget nuns.

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    Pisten Bully on the left and the Caterpillar D6 dozer to the right. We need a bulldozer to dig the bulldozer out.

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    Some visitors as seen from our dining room window. They're Adelie penguins in case you're still guessing.

  • 22/2/11: What a day; one of those ones that you wished just didn't happen. It started off bad when a major storm lasting two days ceased all outdoor travel. Then during some local electrical work, the power to our telephone exchange and satellite equipment failed at a particularly bad time, leaving me scrambling to get it all working as quickly as possible.

    Then to add fuel to the fire, an unpermitted Norwegian yacht with three people on board sent out a brief mayday message before they were never heard from again. The NZ Navy ship, HMNZS Wellington who had called into McMurdo Station a day before, had to eventually call off their search as they were experiencing 80 knot winds and huge seas. Read the press release here.

    But it didn't end there. The missing yacht had also dropped off two people who were attempting to travel to the South Pole on farm quad bikes. They were badly under-equipped for the conditions and no-one knew where they were.

    Then when there was no way that things could possibly get any worse, the second large earthquake struck Christchurch at 12:50PM, causing widespread damage and many deaths. It was great relief to later find out that my relations, friends, house and work colleagues were all fine.

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    The NZ Navy ship HMNZS Wellington battling the Antarctic storm. They also lost 4 of their 50-man liferafts and suffered minor damage during the intense storm.

  • 20/2/11: An emotional day as the last of the summer staff left, plus the three TVNZ crew who stayed an extra few days due to flight delays. The six of them will be preparing to board the C17 for takeoff as I type this. That leaves just the 10 Scott Base winter staff and four Antarctic Heritage Trust people here for the winter. Everyone has been getting along great so far, hopefully things continue to go well.

    1:15AM this morning also marked the first sunset since the 24th of October. We'll gradually be getting more and more hours of darkness over March and will be completely dark in May. From then on, there will be no sun until August.

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    The view from the top of Observation Hill at about 9:40PM at night. Not the sunset, but the sky looks nice and the open ocean and sea ice is remarkable. Was feeling a bit sleepy to stay up past 1AM, but apparently McMurdo Station were having hot chocolate outside at Hut Point to mark the event. Credit to Vicky Wilkinson-Baker for the photo.

  • 19/2/11: The sea ice at the front of Scott Base is starting to break up as well. At the coast you can hear the ice creaking as it moves with the ocean tide. It's no longer safe for walking on either, so it's now closed, also closing access to the pressure ridges. Due to the increasing number of cracks in the ice, there are now huge numbers of seals and penguins on the sea ice out the front of Scott Base.

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    View from the lounge window. The summer lab and wet lab are in the foreground with the diminishing pressure ridges on the sea ice in the background. All of the small black dots on the sea ice are seals. The buildings on the horizon in the upper left is the Long Duration Balloon facility, now closed for the season.

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    An Adelie penguin that had come up through the salt water intake hole just out the front of Scott Base.

  • 16/2/11: Well, the Erebus ceremony happened exactly on schedule, but here had to be a catch. During the ceremony, we were contacted by the air crew who had received reports of fog and increasing winds. So wanting to play it safe, they requested that everyone make it back to the plane as quickly as possible.

    So following the 30-minute ceremony, all of the visitors had a brief drink and snack in Scott Base, then they were transported back to the airfield. It was a very intense day, but despite the last minute schedule change, things went OK.

    It was one of those days where you're rushing about so much, that taking photos is the last thing on your mind. Not that there was much to see anyhow. But in other news, the sea ice around McMurdo Station has starting breaking out. It's most unusual seeing open ocean where there is usually solid ice.

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    Open ocean as seen from Vince's Cross out the front of McMurdo Station. There was an airport on this piece of water only three months ago when it was frozen. I have to credit Corey Hamill for the photo; it's no secret that my photography skills rarely cut the mustard.

  • 15/2/11: The Mt Erebus commemoration ceremony is being held tomorrow. Air NZ are flying down approximately 120 people to attend a memorial ceremony behind Scott Base, followed by a brief tour of the base, a snack then back on the Boeing 757 back to Christchurch. TVNZ sent down a crew for the occasion who ran a number of live video feeds for the 6PM news. Reporter Vicky Wilkinson-Baker, camera man Corey Hamill and photographer Ross Land. It was a bit of a stretch pushing live video through our narrow satellite bandwidth, but with a bit of planning and support to the TVNZ crew, we all manged to make it happen.

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    From left to right, there's Corey behind the camera, Ross (hidden) holding the reflection board and Vicky reporting the live news.

  • 12/2/11: More summer staff trickled away home today, plus we had many visitors arrive from New Zealand who are staying for a couple of days. This morning I had breakfast with Kate Wilkinson, the Minister of Labour, Conservation and Food Safety. Also got to meet the minister's adviser, the CEO of Christchurch International Airport, CEO of Meridian Energy, CEO of Air AsiaX, CEO of the Australian Antarctic Programme and a number of representitives from the Christchurch City Council.

    Our distinguished guests also took part in the Scott Base summer to winter handover ceremony. This is where the base operation is formally handed onto the winter managers; Troy Beaumont and myself.

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    The container ship visiting McMurdo also left today. It visits once per yer to re-supply McMurdo Station, Scott Base and also the South Pole.

  • 9/2/11: After a shakey start with the weather, I eventually made it to our remaining four radio sites to remove the radio equipment and batteries for the winter season. No sunlight for solar charging means that the batteries would go flat and the electrolyte would freeze, causing permanent damage. So the equipment comes back in for the winter.

    Was a very intense day. The cloud lingering around some sites meaning we only had minutes of ground time, so I had to really rush things along. If it clouded in to the point that the helicopter could not take off, it would mean spending the night, or more, on top of freezing mountains in the middle of nowhere.

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    Another view over the McMurdo Ice Shelf on the way to Mt Erebus. To the left of centre is Big Razorback Island and Tent Island is the pointy one to the right of centre. Compare this to the photo I took from a similar location 5 days earlier on 4/2/11 below. The ice changes a lot over just a week.

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    Mt Newall from the air. Our Antarctica NZ radio equipment is in the small green building. The larger white building on the left houses the American's equipment, which also has a wind generator for power.

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    The sea ice breaking out near Butter Point in McMurdo Sound.

  • 7/2/11: To remove a large piece of underwater ice from the ice pier, it turns out the Americans used a row of explosives. It figures, they just love blowing stuff up.

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    What can I say? It certainly got the job done in the end...

  • 5/2/11: Yet another interesting Scott Base tradition is the "Polar Plunge". It involves jumping through a hole in the sea ice and into the ocean. Hmmmm. I wouldn't say I'm the sharpest tool in the shed, but that does sound like a stupid idea, if not just a largely unpleasant experience. Besides, I had several days of work to catch up on and I'm all about productivity. Not to mention the fact that I hate going in the water. Despite these glaringly obvious reasons, around half of the Scott Base staff thought otherwise and persued the chilling dip. So long as they enjoyed it I guess!

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    The air temperature was around -5 degrees C, the ocean about -2. I can think of more fun things to do.

  • 4/2/11: It's about that time of the season where all the mountain top radio gear needs to be brought in at the end of the season. There's no more science events in the field and as the sites are all solar powered, there's no sun at all in winter to keep the batteries charged. So the batteries are collected from five remote sites, plus the radio equipment comes back to live in the warm at Scott Base and gets a check over. I've already collected everything from the HF remote receiver site at Black Island, but today's effort was focused on the notorious Hooper's Shoulder on Mt Erebus. I had my doubts when I looked out the window and saw cloud instead of mountain, but the US helicopter people were keen on giving it a crack. Got near the site and couldn't see well enough to land. Wow, didn't expect that now, did we Einsteins?

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    If nothing else, I took this mediocre photo of the sea ice on the approach to Mt Erebus. Maybe we'll give it another try next week.

  • 2/2/11: Very slowly the summer staff are trickling away back home. Today we said goodbye to Malina from the comms office. Many of the others are due to head away a week later on the 9th, but Malina was away early to begin his university scholarship work.

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    Malina hard at work in the comms office. I'll really miss many of the summer crew. As you'd expect from a group of 30 people all training, living and working together every day over the last four months, most of us have come to know each other fairly well.

  • 1/2/11: Spent the last couple of days on winter field training. We did the same kind of thing at the start of the season last October, but this time around it was just the winter staff, myself included. Was much more relaxed with a group of only 14 or so people. Pretty much just took the Hagglund to somewhere snowy, set up polar tents, had a bar-be-que and a few beers. The downside being that if you took too long drinking the beers at -15 degrees C then they started turning into ice in your hand. Had a magnificent night of sleep though. Slept like a baby although I wasn't waking up every three hours crying with pants full of poo.

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    Lounging on the snow. I'm second in on the left side; made myself a very comfortable foot stool out of snow.