Amiga Technical Resource

Working in Antarctica

In mid-January 2016 I was suddenly in the situation of returning to Scott Base at short notice to resume duties of my 2015-2016 counterpart communications engineer who had experienced medical difficulties. It began with completing the remaining month of the summer season, which then evolved to staying on for winter 2016. This will be my fourth season for Antarctica NZ, Telecom NZ International and Downer Engineering.

This is a more unusual situation, arriving abruptly part-way through the season with daily temperatures around zero degrees Celsius, cooling slowly towards the end of summer in February before returning to the more familiar -20 to -40 degree C days of winter along with the impending 24 hour darkness.

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.

Previous diaries from the 2010-2011, 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 seasons are also available.

Select month to view:
January 2016 February 2016 March 2016 March 2016 May 2016 June 2016 July 2016 August 2016 September 2016 October 2016

Anthony-ScottBase-small.jpg (10124 bytes)
February 2016
  • 28/2/2016: That's it, the last of the Christchurch office people left two days ago, so it's finally just the 20 of us here until early April, then down to 11 once the Leighs Construction crew return home.

    This time last week we were just getting ready for a trip over the hill to McMurdo Station to enjoy brunch with the Americans and see some of our friends over there. But just prior to leaving, the fire alarm went off. Smoke detector in one of the visitor accommodation rooms. Unlike the usual round of false alarms, this time the room was actually filled with actual smoke. The source of which turned out to be from a failed component in a fluorescent light that had been left on. It provides a great deal of confidence on how good the fire detection systems at Scott Base are. This incident would likely had resulted in an actual fire if it wasn't for the early smoke detection and fast action of the fire crew.

    Photos this week are nearly all from Katrina. We had the annual Spirit of Enderby ship visit this week and we were invited on board afterwards. Unfortunately I had been tricked into agreeing to cover someone on fire watch that evening, which turned out to be so they could visit the ship. So as usual, I was stuck here on fire crew. I sound like a broken record.

    First_sunset_2016.jpg (41831 bytes)
    We saw the first sunset of 2016 this week on the 22nd of February. Setting at 12:50AM and rising at 3:26AM. Won't be long now before it starts getting properly dark in the wee hours of the morning. After sunset, there's still plenty of dull ambient light; at least for another couple of weeks.

    Passengers_into_LC130.jpg (58744 bytes)
    Various NZ and American passengers boarding the LC-130 at William's Field for the 8-9 hour return journey to Christchurch, NZ. Hey, I just noticed that's the only 8-bladed propeller Herc in the fleet, old Smokey Joe. The same one that kept catching fire during our departing flights from NZ last month! Presumably they fixed the problem in the end. Or it's carrying a large cargo of fire extinguishers.

    Wind_farm_breakout.jpg (81919 bytes)
    It's uncertain if we'll see a complete sea ice breakout to Scott Base this year. That usually only happens once in a while. The annual ice melt is about where it usually gets to at this time of a year, as seen past the wind farm. If we get a decent storm in the next couple of weeks it'll probably get the ice moving a bit more before the ocean starts re-freezing soon with the falling temperature.

    Pressure_ridges_are_closed.jpg (75774 bytes)
    And with the sea ice getting slushy, the sea ice pressure ridges have closed for the time being. Best not to have people accidentally falling into melt pools and drowning. The many new people here are hoping for a complete ice breakout as seeing open water just out the door makes a nice change from the usual plateau of ice as far as you can see. The open ocean also brings many killer whales to the doorstep. As someone has amended the note on the white board above, there had better be ales! Speaking of which, we have three different craft beers in the bar from the Three Boys brewery in Christchurch. I'm quite pleased by this.

    Ice_sheet_breakup.jpg (59003 bytes)
    Another view of the crumbling ice sheet floating on the ocean. It's changing every day, though as the air cools (-21C this morning), the ocean surface starts to re-freeze and the sea ice breakup slows down.

    McMurdo_ice_sheet.jpg (76984 bytes)
    McMurdo Station seen from the Zodiac ride out to the visiting ship, Spirit of Enderby. I wish I'd been there, instead of being stuck here on fire crew. Again.

    Scott_Base_ice_edge.jpg (55675 bytes)
    Katrina convinced the Zodiac driver to explore the edge of the broken out sea ice. From Scott Base (pictured centre), we could see them through the telescope. The sea ice sheet is a lot thicker than it looks from a distance. It's generally around 2 metres thick.

    Row_of_Hagglunds.jpg (106015 bytes)
    Here's the one photo of the week from me. Instead of having a good time with boats, I was having a bad time with trying to make GPS units work in Hagglunds. One of our Garmin units had been broken and was exchanged for a new unit, which worked normally above a latitude of 60 degrees south; we're at 77 degrees south, which made the GPS display unit almost as unhappy as I was to be dealing with this.

  • 21/2/2016: As expected with the departure of nearly all the summer staff this week, the daily urgent work has reduced considerably, meaning there's now actually time to get other things done. I'm really growing to enjoy our winter crew, especially our very Australian carpenter, known as Grubb.

    At morning tea the other day:
    Grubb: "The spectator crowd at Bathurst was great. If you went into your car to start it up, and there was any minor sign of it hesitating to start, the crowd would roll your car upside-down and set it on fire."

    Me: "What the hell is wrong with Australians?!!"

    Grubb: "It's just 'cause we're a nation of convicts."

    The last part of my week was taken up with packing and sending personal possessions back to NZ for my counterpart, Grumps. Since he's no longer here for winter, he wanted his stuff back. Fair enough. But he had pallet loads of stuff, literally. After much effort, that's finally in the cargo system and I have floor space and bench space in the workshop again.

    Mac_farewell.jpg (106363 bytes)
    Last season was peppered with people getting sent home for "failing to meet the criteria" while this season it's been due to medical issues. Fortunately there's been no accidents or anything too serious. Mac left yesterday morning, a week or so earlier than expected. He was in great spirits as the McMurdo shuttle van stopped to we could all wish him farewell.

    Bruce_bagpipes.jpg (122310 bytes)
    Bruce gets his bagpipes out at every occasion he can. Such as during the departure of a respected Scott Base figure such as Mac (above), Robbie Burns evening, the stroke of New Years, your pen falling off the desk onto the floor, etc. Fortunately all the practice he's had has made him a fairly reasonable piper.

    Mac_in_USAP_shuttle.jpg (141894 bytes)
    Waving goodbye to Mac on his way out to the airfield. We're looking forward to seeing him back next summer.

    HFC_warm_porch_walls.jpg (135443 bytes)
    Temperatures took a sudden plummet this week. On Monday we went from typical daytime temperatures of a pleasant -5 to 0 degrees to around -20C, a sure sign that winter is just around the corner. The project team working on the Field Centre expansions have really been feeling the cold this week. They'll be working out in it for a few more weeks to come, and it's only going to get colder.

    HFC_container_dock_concrete.jpg (123254 bytes)
    At the same time, the Field Centre container lab dock looks to be progressing well. Prefabricated concrete floor panels are bolted in place and wall panelling will start to go on in the next week or two.

    McMurdo_NEAX2400.jpg (108317 bytes)
    I completed some work at McMurdo Station during the week. This is their telephone exchange, an aging NEC NEAX2400. Despite having to source spare parts from Ebay, the thing has been running well enough for years. They keep talking about replacing it, but of course that involves a lot of time and money.

    McMurdo_MDF.jpg (200609 bytes)
    Part of the MDF or Main Distribution Frame at McMurdo Telco. These type 66 blocks are connections between the telephone exchange (PABX) and cable pairs running off to other buildings and other sites. We have a very similar structure here at Scott Base, but on a smaller scale.

  • 14/2/2016: Many out and about jobs this week have added more pressure to the mounting workload, so it was good to complete the last remaining helicopter access job yesterday afternoon. It's that time of year when the radio equipment and batteries are returned from their mountain top sites back to Scott Base for the winter. The lack of sunlight over winter means there is no solar power to keep batteries charged. When the lead acid batteries become discharged, their freezing temperature rises from around -40C to around -5C, so if the internal sulphuric acid was to freeze, the expansion of the solid mass damages the internal lead plates and plastic casing, ruining the battery.

    Here's a graph that explains it in more detail. Everyone likes graphs, especially statisticians and maths teachers. In case you don't already know, the specific gravity of a fully charged battery is about 1.27 and a very flat battery is about 1.1.
    Acid_freezing_graph.jpg (61815 bytes)

    11 summer staff also left yesterday, with most of the remaining summer staff departing over the coming week. They've only been here a little more than four months, though some of them act as though it's been an eternity. A brief add-up just now reveals I've spent around 1180 days here since 2010. Certainly far from any record, but I have spent more time in Antarctica than back home in New Zealand over the last five years.

    Yesterday also saw the annual summer to winter flag ceremony, which is the official change from the summer to the winter crew. Before long it'll just be the 11 of us winter staff and the Field Centre construction crew until early April, then when the construction crew leave, it'll just be the 11 of us until August.

    This will probably be the last of semi-interesting photos in a while, so I've got a few more than usual this week for your viewing pleasure.

    Ski_field_rope_tow.jpg (106645 bytes)
    Last Sunday was the final day of the ski field before it was packed up for the season and the rental ski and snowboard equipment returned to Christchurch. Despite my towering workload, I don't regret taking a single one day weekend off work to make the most of one of the final days of warm temperatures and calm winds I'm likely to be seeing for a while.

    Arrival_Heights_wind_mast.jpg (90775 bytes)
    A final job with riggers Keri and Jay this week before they returned home; was the removal of the Meridian Energy wind monitoring mast. It had been installed roughly ten years ago to study annual wind speeds and temperatures for a wind farm survey. Presumably they have all the data they need for the time being.

    6GHz_waveguide_termination.jpg (193638 bytes)
    In my last monthly report I mentioned that I was sourcing a 50 Ohm termination for the open waveguide on a combiner port on our 9 metre satellite antenna. The report made its way to my uncle, Brent Jones, working for Chorus NZ who found a surplus termination and sent it my way as a freebie. Kind of nice how these things sometimes work out.

    HFC_container_dock_floor_beams.jpg (131051 bytes)
    The Leighs Construction team continue working long hours every day on the Field Centre expansions. They have the floor beams in place for the new container lab dock. Polystyrene and steel freezer panel is bolted on under the steel floor beams and prefabricated concrete slabs are then bolted on top of the steel beams.

    Loader_working.jpg (175689 bytes)
    There is a lot of heavy machinery movement as part of the Field Centre construction. The 924K loader above carries sheets of freezer panelling from a shipping container to the construction site.

    Amiga_A1200_repairs.jpg (168337 bytes)
    One of the issues I had with my abrupt return to Scott Base three weeks ago was the outstanding customer repair jobs I had in progress; many of them in transit or waiting on parts. Unfortunately the Scott Base workshop is not at all suited for Amiga computer repairs, meaning I had to send down much of my Amiga specific test equipment to create a minimal repair and test facility to complete these jobs, most of which are still in progress. Not only is it problematic with getting freight to and from here, there's the lack of my complete repair facility that I have back home, and also a lack of time between much other work at present as I'm often working days, night and during the single-day weekend. The photo above shows an Amiga A1200 repair in progress with a small TV set used as a test monitor.

    Blue_Glacier.jpg (80482 bytes)
    I think this is the Blue Glacier; a typical view into the Dry Valleys region on the way to remove equipment from our three radio sites there at the end of the summer season.

    Mt_JJ_Thomson_radio_site.jpg (211510 bytes)
    The first of the three radio sites, Mt JJ Thomson in the Taylor Valley. I get given an excess number of 'helpers' for these sorts of jobs, which makes a simple half day job take two days due to the much extra planning and safety briefings I'm required to do in order to prevent the tourists from inadvertently killing themselves along the way.

    Mt_Newall_from_air.jpg (147911 bytes)
    The second of the Dry Valleys radio sites, Mt Newall, also features a large white building that houses the Americans' radio equipment. The NZ site is the small green hut in the centre.

    Lake_Vida_Victoria_Valley.jpg (97632 bytes)
    Looking west down the Victoria Valley towards Lake Vida on the way to the third site, Mt Cerberus, which proved to be too cloudy to access that day. Ironically enough, the complete lack of wind meant that the problematic light could was hanging around certain mountain tops whereas a calm breeze would get the cloud moving.

    Butter_Point_sheet_ice.jpg (122645 bytes)
    Returning to Scott Base from a partially completed job in the Dry Valleys. This is the view over what I think is Butter Point, or at least somewhere close by, probably The Strand Moraines. Slabs of broken sea ice float in the Ross Sea in McMurdo Sound.

    Amanda-quad_bike.jpg (104083 bytes)
    Amanda has been doing the job of summer field support for a number of seasons now. She's getting pretty slick at loading and unloading the contents of the helicopter into the quad bike trailer at Scott Base.

    Mt_Cerberus_from_air.jpg (142221 bytes)
    A few days later we made a second visit to the last Dry Valleys site, Mt Cerberus, to retrieve the radio equipment and batteries at the end of the summer season. In the meantime we'd had a decent day of snow fall, so everything was white instead of brown. I know, sounds a bit racist.

    Mt_Cerberus_radio_site.jpg (86347 bytes)
    This would be why the remote telemetry showed the solar charge current as 10mA (0.01A) and a temperature of -12C. The layer of snow blocks sunlight from the solar modules.

    Mt_Cerberus_DC_system.jpg (127781 bytes)
    Inside the red box is a couple of 100AHr 12V batteries, a box containing a Tait T735 duplex VHF repeater and a Tait T754 UHF mobile for linking. The solar regulator and DC distribution board seen above stays on site. It includes current sensing for radio telemetry reporting, which I designed and built back in 2011.

    McMurdo_from_air.jpg (106958 bytes)
    A bit of an overcast day on the return journey to Scott Base. McMurdo Station visible in the centre of the photo above.

    Snowy_Scott_Base.jpg (150711 bytes)
    Recent snowfall also turned the dusty grounds around Scott Base into the more familiar frozen shade of white.

    Mt_Erebus_13-2-16.jpg (95629 bytes)
    After the usual days of waiting for cloud, yesterday started out as one of those "hurry up and wait" jobs. Then just before mid-day the cloud surrounding Mt Erebus parted to reveal the towering volcano, meaning we could access the final radio site, Hoopers Shoulder, on the west (left) side of the mountain.

    Castle_Rock_from_air.jpg (64575 bytes)
    Flying past Castle Rock on the way to Mt Erebus. You can clearly see the Hagglunds tracks in the fresh snow.

    Matt_in_Bell212.jpg (124827 bytes)
    I also get 'helpers' tasked to me for the work at Hoopers Shoulder, but at least with this job they earn their keep. The site is very rocky and there's over quarter of a tonne of batteries and radio equipment to be carried from the equipment shelter to the helicopter. Naturally the helpers are initially very excited about going for what they think is just a pleasant helicopter ride. This is the smile on Matt the electrician's face inside the Bell 212 helicopter. I don't think he was smiling quite as much after I made him carry the batteries and radios.

    USAP_helicopter_at_Hoopers.jpg (152878 bytes)
    This is the Americans' Bell 212 helicopter landed in among the rocks at Hoopers Shoulder. Luckily there's a smooth and easy path for carrying batteries from the equipment shelter where I'm taking this photo from, directly to the helicopter. Sorry, actually I meant the complete opposite of that. The ragged route is not at all defined and is filled with angst and despair. Carrying heavy batteries over huge rocks and slippery snow drifts is anything but ponies playing in gumdrop meadows. Hence the useful workplace health and safety initiative: Prevent workplace injuries, make someone else do it.

    Sherpa_Terrel_at_Hoopers.jpg (180938 bytes)
    This is Terrel, the token black guy and my Sherpa (as he described it). Fortunately he's actually enjoying the hard work at Hoopers Shoulder; some of these NZ Army boys are actually great value.

    Hoopers_view_SW.jpg (94643 bytes)
    No visit to Hoopers Shoulder on Mt Erebus would be complete without taking a second to admire the fantastic view. This is looking south-west towards Mt Discovery which is hiding behind the distant clouds.

    Mt_Terror_seen_from_Erebus.jpg (62700 bytes)
    Mt Terror, on the eastern side of Ross Island, as seen from near the summit of Mt Erebus.

    Ob_Hill-SB-Seals.jpg (123080 bytes)
    Returning to Scott Base from Mt Erebus. Observation Hill seen top centre, Scott Base to the right and the pressure ridges dotted with seals in the foreground.

    Seals_and_helicopter_shadow.jpg (117372 bytes)
    The Weddell Seals usually aren't too fazed by the noisy helicopter flying above, but sometimes the American pilots deliberately fly fairly low to stir them up, with shouts of "get a move on you fat slugs!"

    Jason-New_Herman_Nelson.jpg (146950 bytes)
    Winter mechanic Jason Millar checking over the brand new Herman Nelson (hot air blower) which is used for a variety of tasks from thawing frozen water pipes to melting compacted snow away from vehicle engines.

    Shannon-flag_ceremony.jpg (100895 bytes)
    Yesterday also saw the annual tradition of the youngest person on base lowering the summer flag and raising the smaller winter one in the summer to winter crew handover ceremony.

    Flag_ceremony_haka.jpg (114660 bytes)
    Some of the guys and gals had been rehearsing a haka during the week to perform at the flag ceremony. They even went to the trouble of writing it themselves (in English) and had someone translate it into Maori. In light of their effort, I feel a bit terrible in saying that from where I was standing, I couldn't hear it all that well, and it looked as though they were doing the actions to "Don't tell my heart, my achy breaky heart, I just don't think he'll understand...."

  • 7/2/2016: NZ Waitangi Day flew by yesterday and I didn't even notice, it's surprising how quickly you become disconnected from home when you don't read the news very often. We're in that wind-down period at the end of the summer season where in my role, everything seems to be happening at once. Two others from Downer Engineering are on site this week for the annual rigging maintenance work, which included various copper cable and antenna maintenance. It's also that time of year where batteries and radio equipment are retrieved from remote communications sites for return to Scott Base over winter as in only a few more months, there will be no more sunlight for the solar panels to keep batteries charged.

    Ocean_Giant_at_ice_pier.jpg (130252 bytes)
    The container ship, Ocean Giant, was loaded with waste and equipment for return to New Zealand and America. It departed earlier this week to be replaced by the fuel resupply ship. Its cargo of special low temperature diesel and petrol is being unloaded at present.

    Polar_Star-McMurdo.jpg (95231 bytes)
    The US icebreaker, Polar Star, in the sea ice at the front of McMurdo Station.

    Jay-Keri_cable_repairs.jpg (228560 bytes)
    Riggers Jay and Keri repairing a damaged 25-pair copper communications cable between Scott Base and Arrival Heights after it appeared to have been driven over, multiple times, by a US snow cat. Right beside a big yellow sign that reads "Do not drive off road, ground laid cables".

    Ursula-Keri-Jay_Bruker.jpg (116483 bytes)
    During a short visit to the Arrival Heights lab to test communications cables, science tech Ursula explains to Keri and Jay how the Bruker instrument measures atmospheric gasses using sunlight, mirrors and some kind of black magic.

    HFC_warm_porch_framing.jpg (98274 bytes)
    The Leighs Construction contractors are making rapid progress in the structural framing for the Field Centre warm porch expansion.

    HFC_container_dock_framing.jpg (120897 bytes)
    Leighs are also working this morning (Sunday) on the Field Centre container lab dock. They're aiming to have both expansion completed in early April when they fly home to NZ. Internal fit-out is being planned from August.

    Approach_to_Brown_Peninsula.jpg (148051 bytes)
    Thursday saw a couple of helicopter access jobs, the first one on Mt Wise on top of Brown Peninsula, approximately 30km south-west of Scott Base. The view above is of Black Island as we flew over bits of land and sea ice.

    Mt_Wise_repeater.jpg (89326 bytes)
    The temporary VHF repeater which we were retrieving from Mt Wise at the end of the summer season. I'd done the radio engineering for this job last winter where radio coverage was calculated to provide area specific coverage for science events located in a series of valleys which was otherwise very problematic for radio communications.

    Helicopter_at_Mt_Wise.jpg (118798 bytes)
    The helicopter from NZ company Southern Lakes Helicopters had just been sent back home on the ship at the end of the season, so we're needing to use the American helicopters and pilots to complete our jobs. This is one of their Bell 212 machines at Mt Wise.

    Black_Island_delta_repairs.jpg (98113 bytes)
    After the Mt Wise job, it was off to our remote HF receiver site on black island where riggers Keri and Jay conducted repairs on the delta antenna which had been damaged from storms over last winter.

    Unloading_helicopter_at_Black_Island.jpg (161455 bytes)
    Unloading the helicopter at Black Island. It's hard to tell, but it was annoyingly windy on site, around 35 knots (65km/hr).

    Keri-Black_Island.jpg (133325 bytes)
    Keri walking around the frozen beach at Black Island while waiting for the helicopter to collect us at the end of the day. Mt Erebus pictured centre.

    ScottBase_landing_approach.jpg (113518 bytes)
    Approaching the helicopter pad back at Scott Base, just in time for dinner and a few well deserved cold beers.

    Field_Centre_waste_water_flood.jpg (220979 bytes)
    While we were out yesterday, the visiting fire inspector managed to somehow flood the Field Centre waste water system with a large volume of water drained from the sprinkler tank. The transfer pumps couldn't cope with the volume of water, causing raw sewage to spill out into the labs and hallways. See what happens when you go away for a few hours?