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

Anthony-ScottBase-small.jpg (10124 bytes)
February 2015
  • 22/2/2015: With a majority of the summer staff leaving, it's been a week of mixed emotions as almost 30 people returned home to New Zealand. While most of them were eager to get back to friends and family, it's sad for them to be leaving their home of the last four and a half months. Likewise for us in the winter crew, it was a bit sad to see many of our friends from summer depart. On the plus side, the place has quietened down dramatically.

    Some of the returnee winter staff dislike summer with a passion as it's usually very busy with many staff and visitors, plus there's the impression that management are always closely watching. I can't say I blame them, it does feel a bit like you're stuck at home with the babysitter at times. At least back in the real world, most people can go home and leave work and your boss behind. While of course here you're living and working with your boss 24 hours per day. So it's nice to now see the winter staff finally starting to relax and get on with things now that the management team and the summer crew are off to greener pastures in NZ.

    Sunset_22-2-15.jpg (103615 bytes)
    The sunset just after midnight, this morning at 12:30. We also had the first sunset of the year two days ago. At present it's setting at 12:27AM and rising at 3:49AM. It'll rapidly start getting darker in the mornings.

    Sea_ice_time_lapse_camera.jpg (90874 bytes)
    During the week I set up this time lapse camera to record sea ice growth over winter, the camera belongs to long time Antarctic photographer and artist Anthony Powell, the maker of the acclaimed feature film, Antarctica: A Year On Ice.

    Arrival_Heights_antennas.jpg (106092 bytes)
    The view out to McMurdo Sound over the Arrival Heights scientific receiving antennas.

    SB97FM_radio_station.jpg (132569 bytes)
    Here's the "studio" of our radio station, Scott Base 97FM which I manage. It's a huge source of morale on base though always difficult to strike a happy medium with people who have vastly different tastes in music. We've been talking to The Radio Network in New Zealand who is in the process of donating us some used equipment to help upgrade and expand our station.

    Incinerator_shed_new_door.jpg (109193 bytes)
    In the Scott Base local grounds, there's a lot of work happening around the Field Centre rebuild project. As part of this, the dry food store which was once in the Field Centre has been relocated to the old incinerator shed, pictured above with a new front door. Inside, it's been tidied up and lined with plywood. Previous to this, it used to be the carpenter's wood store; which has since been relocated to somewhere outside with some rocks on top of the wood to stop it blowing away. Hmmmm, I'm not convinced this is a good long term solution.

    Stores_outside_hangar.jpg (124890 bytes)
    The old hangar building is also receiving a re-fit inside to turn it back into a useable cold storage building. Some of the equipment from inside the building is temporarily stacked outside, though it's often an issue trying to stop everything from getting either blown away or buried in snow.

    Digger_inside_hangar.jpg (140556 bytes)
    Inside the old hangar building the new excavator is being used to remove the old steel and concrete floor. Easier said than done because the 'dirt' floor contains much hard ice. After this is cleared, a new floor will be formed by a layer of bedding sand with concrete paving bricks set into it.

  • 15/2/2015: Last Sunday ended up being busier than usual for a number of reasons, including data communications issues with our electricity network, storms causing damage and trying to set the Scott Base bar up for a live music set without a lead vocalist or any real music equipment. As a result I ran out of time to write something here last week, so today there are few more photos than usual to compensate.

    So last week I had some of the managers from Telecom NZ International on site who were doing a variety of planning work, so they needed some support from me. We had a couple of winter group familiarisation sessions last week, more often known as "group hugging sessions". The less said about this, the better.

    Certainly the major highlight of the past couple of weeks was the tour of the fuel ship. One of our communications operators made friends with some of the ship's crew and they invited us aboard one evening for a look around. See the photos below.

    This past week also saw the last of our summer science events, plus I retrieved the last of the radio site batteries and equipment prior to winter. And that's really about it for the summer season. Half of the summer staff head home tomorrow, the other half on Wednesday, leaving our winter crew of 19 here along with a few extra people from the NZ Army who are helping with various construction activities until April.

    AFS_igloo_building.jpg (107090 bytes)
    As part of the winter group familiarisation "group hugging" sessions, we ended up doing various team activities, including igloo building. I've not done this before and must admit it was actually quite fun. I'm on the far left in the photo above. We realised a bit too late that you need to cut more taper on the snow blocks as you build up the walls, else they end up going vertically to the point that you can no longer reach the top.

    AFS_igloos.jpg (83805 bytes)
    The mostly finished igloos. At least ours (third from left) got finished. Everyone else quickly ran out of steam as soon as the beers started going down. I fully understand.

    SB_winter_team.jpg (117248 bytes)
    A group photo of our winter team plus the smaller construction crew with us until April. I'm on the far right, dressed in black.

    Fuel_ship_ice_pier.jpg (101386 bytes)
    This is the fuel supply ship at the McMurdo ice pier. It takes about three to five days of 24 hour pumping to unload the AN-8 (low temperature diesel) and Mogas (petrol equivalent) to bulk storage tanks.

    Fuel_ship_front_deck.jpg (209155 bytes)
    Looking over the front deck of the fuel ship. Essentially the entire vessel is a massive fuel tank. There's little living space below decks because it's all bulk fuel tanks.

    Fuel_ship_main_engine.jpg (191894 bytes)
    The seven cylinder main engine of the ship. Have I ever mentioned that I love ships? Big boy's toys.

    Fuel_ship_Sunday_storm.jpg (123183 bytes)
    Last weekend saw a couple of days of strong winds and generally stormy weather. It kept the ship in port for another couple of days until it could safely navigate out through the ice channel. Not that the sea ice was really a problem because most of it blew away in the storm.

    McMurdo_ice_breakout.jpg (139590 bytes)
    You can clearly see open ocean beyond McMurdo Station in the photo above. If you've got a keen eye, you may see the ice breaker out in McMurdo sound, roughly in the centre of the visible ocean. It probably needs to be about in case the tanker has trouble with pack ice. The southerly wind had blown much pack ice around the ship; perhaps they needed to ram it clear using the breaker. Fortunately the captain was a little more careful than the one from the Exxon Valdez.

    Hoisting_winter_flag.jpg (85359 bytes)
    Last Tuesday saw the annual tradition of the youngest person on base lower the larger summer flag and replace it with a smaller winter flag. It still gets badly shredded by the harsh winter winds. One year we had one star left and some of the Union Jack. The flag is usually awarded to the base manager or someone else in need of special reward for outstanding achievements in the field of excellence. "Thanks for all the hard work, here's what's left of a New Zealand flag which may be suitable as a tatty loin cloth to replace your fig leaf".

    Scott_Base_asbestos_pit.jpg (131844 bytes)
    Scott Base staff view the flag ceremony from beyond the cordon of the asbestos pit in the background. At least it makes an interesting change in backdrop from the typical bits of ice, seals and penguins.

    Asbestos_pit.jpg (140404 bytes)
    Here it is again, the asbestos pit in all its cancerous glory. They dug it out on Thursday and are sending the contaminated soil back to NZ. It seems that construction teams of previous eras were not quite as environmentally conscious as we are today. Bits of an old Scott Base building ended up being brushed under the carpet, so to speak; along with various bits of twisted metal, wood, pipe, chisels, crow bars, shovels and more. Seriously, how much effort would have been required to pick a few tools and things up instead of piling them into the ground? Obviously way too much.

    Black_Island_radio_site.jpg (138892 bytes)
    During the week I was at our Black Island remote HF receiver site to remove the batteries and radio equipment at the end of the summer season. There's no sunlight to keep the batteries charged and the equipment warm, so the batteries and radio gear lives inside at Scott Base during the cold dark days of winter. The big steaming volcano in the background is Mt Erebus.

    Black_Island_helicopter.jpg (122016 bytes)
    Since the Southern Lakes Helicopters crew and their machine have since gone home, our last few remote jobs were done with the United States helicopters, seen above on the landing site at Black Island. The neighbouring White Island is visible in the background. I'm not sure who names these islands but they certainly suggest much racial segregation. I'm half expecting a mandatory name alteration to White Island and Coloured Island to meet the demands of today's politically correct culture.

    Hoopers_Shoulder_radio_site.jpg (123682 bytes)
    After multiple attempts, I finally got to our Hoopers Shoulder radio site, on the upper western side of Mt Erebus. A couple of days earlier the mountain was shrouded in cloud. The day after that the pilot was sick. So we finally got there on Friday afternoon to retrieve the batteries and radio equipment at the end of the summer season.

    Hoopers_Shoulder_helicopter.jpg (160238 bytes)
    One of the United States Antarctic Programme helicopters landing on clear snow between rocks on the side of Mt Erebus. As much as I'd like it; unfortunately I don't have a secret underground lair inside a hollowed out volcano. While Mt Erebus is Antarctica's most active volcano, I suspect it's far from hollow. But apparently there are many ice caves formed by steam vents on the upper sections of the mountain.

    Hoopers_Shoulder_view_west_above_cloud.jpg (114504 bytes)
    The westward view from Hoopers Shoulder at nearly 2200 metres above sea level. It's hard to see, but the open water in McMurdo sound is under that fluffy cloud. The Dry Valleys region of the Antarctic mainland is visible just above the fluffy cloud. I'm going to have the cloud fascists on my case again for my not realising that they're obviously something-o-nimbus-blah-blah.
    Fact of the day: fuel supply ships are significantly more interesting than clouds.

  • 1/2/2015: With the arrival of the container ship on Monday, there have been ongoing 24-hour operations to unload containers and receive and store the contents. Many of the containers contain non-freeze cargo which has the priority to get packed away inside to prevent damage to certain food items.

    The unload operations went smoothly and finished in around four days, possibly a new record. The ship is currently being loaded with waste and surplus items being returned to New Zealand and America. A vast majority of the cargo on the ship is for the Americans at McMurdo Station.

    Meanwhile at Scott Base, the summer staff are rapidly winding down, with most of them leaving in just two weeks. At the same time, the Field Centre construction crew are ramping up the redevelopment work. For whatever reasons, it was decided that the new Field Centre, purpose built in 2008, is no longer fit for purpose. So at present various internal walls are being removed and storage relocated. Over winter a fairly major re-fit is planned, essentially turning most of the Field Centre into computer labs and other areas for science events to stage and plan their summer work.

    As part of this work, various stock that was housed in the field centre is now being relocated into insulated shipping containers that are being located around the place. For example, the base food chiller will be a heated container just outside the kitchen. Ironically enough, only heating is required for this outside refrigerator. The warmest outside temperatures over winter are about -10C, so a thermostatically controlled heater inside the container regulates the inside temperature at +4C to maintain food at the optimum storage temperature.

    Old-T6_New-T6.jpg (107931 bytes)
    Some of the cargo on the container ship included new vehicles that arrived to replace some of the old vehicles. The photo above shows the old T6 Toyota Landcruiser on the left with the brand new replacement T6 parked in front. There were also two new Hagglunds tracked vehicles that arrived, at a cost of about $350,000 each. Ahhh, that's probably why there's no budget for me to do any remotely interesting project work this winter.

    Container_park.jpg (140055 bytes)
    Rows of shipping containers unloaded from the container ship that are awaiting unpacking.

    Years_supply_of_beer.jpg (138951 bytes)
    Inspecting a container of a year's supply of beer, wine and stock for the shop and bar. This year we have two different varieties of Three Boys beers from Christchurch and four Garage Project craft ales from Wellington. Naturally, I couldn't be more excited! However, there was a minor incident while unloading the container the other day with one of the NZ Army plant operators shoving the fork lift through the side of one of the pallets. "I couldn't see where the forks were going!" I've got no idea how to go about driving a fork lift, but I'm picking it would begin with being able to see what you're driving several tonnes of steel into. Else they might as well just hire Stevie Wonder as a plant operator.

    LC130_ski_Herc.jpg (152248 bytes)
    The aircraft mainly in use for flights to and from Christchurch has been the LC130 ski Hercules, pictured above. These have the ability to land on the snow runway at Willy's Field. Problems arose last summer with warm temperatures making the ice runway at Pegasus Field too soft for wheeled aircraft. But the larger C-17 wheeled aircraft are due to start operating again within two weeks.

    K020_field_camp.jpg (188003 bytes)
    Some photos from the K020 field party who left early this week. This is their field camp in the Dry Valleys region. The ground is normally brown and dusty at this time of the year, though they've obviously just had a snow storm. The wall of ice in the background is the end edge of one of the many glaciers in the area.

    K020_drones.jpg (371474 bytes)
    Part of the K020 work in the Dry Valleys was the test flights of radio controlled drone aircraft that carry aerial view cameras. This of course made McMurdo air traffic control especially anxious due to the possible collision with the many helicopters that operate in the area, so a set of operating procedures needed to be established.

    K070_killer_whales.jpg (162682 bytes)
    Lastly, a jumping killer whale photo from the K070 whale research team.