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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January 2011
  • 30/1/11: This is going to sound incredibly repetitive, but yes, it's been another very busy week. I can't quite remember what doing exactly, the entire week seems to blur into one big blob of busyness. A lot of it was spent on ordering parts for winter projects. All freight in and out of Antarctica will stop in another 3-4 weeks, so it's important to make sure you order everything you'll need for winter. Trying to plan things for six months in advance down to the detail of tiny individual components just seems crazy, but necessary. It's not like you can go down to the shop or have the parts in the mail. I'm actually a bit nervous about it because I have quite a number of projects planned for winter and not having one small but important part may ruin all of my carefully laid out plans. I always seem to find a way around such problems so I really should stop worrying.

    Antarctica NZ management have been on site this week to conduct feedback sessions on how things can be improved. It's nice to know that they're willing to listen, and everyone had some good constructive feedback that was well received.

    Nearly all of the science events are in from the field and no more are due in this season. Some of our summer staff are returning home tomorrow on the Monday flight, so we really are into the summer wind down. Plus the last of the Downer Engineering staff who were here for three weeks to do the fibre optic install job, finally returned home last Wednesday after the flight from NZ 'boomeranged' about four times in a row. Which means I'm all on my lonesome once more.

    Tanker-McMurdo.jpg (42002 bytes)
    The fuel supply ship waiting to get into the port at McMurdo Station. It was discovered that the ice pier (left of bottom centre) had a large piece of ice jutting out under water, so the Americans are hard at work to smooth it out so the tanker can dock safely. I think they were drilling a row of holes through the ice then ramming it with the ice breaker to chip it off.

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    Some of the emperor penguins on the sea ice out the front of Scott Base. Photo taken by Andy, one of our field trainers.

  • 19/1/11: A trip to Mt JJ Thompson in the Dry Valley area for some maintenance on the radio site. Some new anchor bolts to be installed, painting of the wooden enclosure, checking the antennas have survived the summer season, checking the radio equipment, batteries and solar regulator.

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    We borrowed a Ramset drill and generator to fit the new expansion anchor bolts into rocks. But on starting the job, the drill didn't work! I did ask the question if it had been tested... Great, thousands of dollars on a wasted helicopter trip. Fortunately my old habit of bringing all of my tools paid off yet again. Managed to rebuild the drill on top of the mountain in the middle of nowhere and got it going again.

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    I was very pleased with our nice job with the firetruck red paint! In the left of the second photo above you can clearly see that a coat of paint was long overdue.

    Emperor_penguins.jpg (10085 bytes)
    Flying over the sea ice on the return journey to Scott Base, we spotted a group of emperor penguins that had popped up through a hole in the sea ice..

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    We also flew over the Oden, the Swedish icebreaker. It's currently travelling up and down the path broken in the sea ice to keep it from freezing over again. The container ship re-supplying McMurdo Station and Scott Base is due around the 6th of February.

  • 18/1/11: Spent the day at Black Island, the site of our HF receiver for long distance radio communications. A highly productive day in which we performed some repairs and maintenance on the antennas, repairs to the remote telemetry system and repairs to the solar regulation system. The field instructors spent significant time before the trip lecturing us that there was 40+ knots of wind at the site with a wind chill of -30 degrees C. It was a calm sunny morning at Scott Base and Black Island is really not that far away; I had my doubts. Sure enough, at the site there was not enough wind to blow a candle out and I spent the day working in a T-shirt.

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    Rob McPhail from Helicopters NZ giving us a ride to the site. I very much enjoy working with Rob who has spent around 4000 hours flying in Antarctica over the past 20 years. Nothing is ever a problem and if there's a job to be done, he goes the extra mile to make it happen. Like myself, he has very little time for people who constantly annoy you with stupid questions.

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    I particularly like this photo of Rob (centre). It's the end of a hard working day and Rob wants to return to Scott Base for a well deserved beer. But blocking the path to the much anticipated beverage are some annoying American reporters. The priceless look on Rob's face suggests that he's less than keen to face a barrage of stupid questions!

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    Here's the site at Black Island. The taller antenna left of centre is the 2-12MHz delta. The short tower with the wind sock on top holds the UHF (450MHz) antennas to link the received audio from the HF receivers to Scott Base. Black Island is used as a receiver site due to the low electrical noise; ideal for receiving weak HF signals from field parties over 800km away.

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    On the return trip we had Sven, who normally works from the Swedish icebreaker, the Oden, currently working around McMurdo Station.

  • 16/1/11: Another sunny Sunday. Today's special event was the 'official' ski field opening, despite the fact it's been running for about six weeks already. Oh well, any excuse for a bit of an occasion I guess. Apparently the soft new snow made for very favourable conditions, plus there was a barbeque for a bit of hot grilled food.

    Unfortunately I ended up working again on my day off, which seems to be happening annoyingly too often. Despite working 12 hour or more days in a six day working week, there still never seems to be enough time to get everything done. This is also a busy month with the fiber optic cable install. And some of the visiting science events are ill prepared, very needy and highly demanding.

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    Here's me having Sunday off. Yeah right. Would make a good Tui add. Installing a GPS receiver on the tower at Crater Hill for the Malaysian science event. Apparently they're using this commercial GPS receiver to somehow look for some kind of intergalactic disturbances, or aliens or something. I'm not kidding!

  • 15/1/11: A two-day snow storm put a damper on the cable installation for while. Not to worry, plenty of inside work to carry on with as always. Another reminder that there's only six weeks left of the summer season, then we'll all be on our lonesome for 5-6 months for the rapidly approaching winter.

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    Once the storm cleared, it left a refreshing white appearance to the landscape. For the last month or two, the terrain has been mostly free of snow and ice. So the new snow made a welcome change to the otherwise rocky view around Scott Base.

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    Another party at Scott Base that evening. We had four bands from McMurdo Station play in the well decorated field centre, which was enjoyed by everyone. Music varied from American folk, to blues/jazz, to bluegrass to dance/pop.

    Ice_breaker_arriving.jpg (10488 bytes)
    Meanwhile, the ice breaker is slowly making it's way through the sea ice. It uses a staggering 7000 gallons of fuel to push through one mile of ice. And you thought your car had fuel efficiency problems? Slow progress as the sea ice is several metres thick in places. The fuel and container ships will then arrive late January/early February to resupply McMurdo Station and Scott Base for another year and to return waste and surplus equipment back to New Zealand.

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    Of course the clearing weather left the perfect opportunity to complete the last section of cable run from the Scott Base road to Crater Hill.

  • 12/1/11: More fibre laying with the help of the helicopter. It's run in three sections to make it more manageable. Our plan was to get a bunch of people in high visibility clothing, line them up along the route of the existing cables so that the helicopter can fly from person to person. It worked well.

    CastleRockRd-Tsite_cable_run.jpg (41305 bytes)
    But working under the helicopter is tricker than it looks. There is a lot of down-draft from the rotor which blows around a lot of dirt and rocks. You need to grab the cable, run it out of the drum above you while running along the existing cable as the helicopter follows on to the next person, without treading on the existing cable and while trying not to fall over the rocky/icy terrain.

  • 10/1/11: After a couple of days planning and familiarisation the fibre optic cable installation job begins. It's 24-strand kevlar reinforced military grade cable which is incredibly strong. You could lift a car using the cable without damage. Each pair of strands can carry up to 100,000 telephone calls, though of course we'll be severly under-utilising it for the moment. At the most, we have around 20 off-continent calls at once, though the same fibre pair also carries all of our internet and other data from Antarctica back to New Zealand.

    AHTS-StarLake_cable_run.jpg (53256 bytes)
    There's 2km of cable on each drum, which weighs around 400kg. Most of it is strung out using a helicopter as most of the cable route is not accessible by vehicle. It's not buried as the ground is permanently frozen, it just sits above ground.

  • 8/1/11: Four of my work colleagues from Downer Engineering arrived to help with the installation of the new fibre optic cable from Scott Base to the Satellite Earth Station. It's intended to replace the existing cable, which is nearly 20 years old and damaged in places. The new cable will provide higher reliability and more room for future expansion.

    Downer_engineering_boys.jpg (44461 bytes)
    The brilliant boys from Downer Engineering. Clockwise from top left is Dean Flintoft, Paul Awdry, Steve Gilligan and Kristian Stahel. It's great to be working with a team of focused professionals who really know their stuff. Special thanks to Steve for teaching me how to fusion splice fibre optic cable.

    StarLake_crevasse.jpg (88059 bytes)
    Scoping out the fibre laying job. It runs nearly 5km and has an interesting path over a mountain, through a glacier and past an ice lake. In the photo above, the ice melt had created a river of flowing water which had cut a deep crevasse through the ground, which consists of soft dirt, rocks and ice. The NASA Satellite Earth Station can be seen in the background.

  • 1/1/11: The beginning of another year and the second two-day weekend in a row which is a refreshing break. Well, I generally end up working anyway but it's the thought that counts.

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    The clock had just rolled over to the first of January, so time for a picture in the Scott Base bar. I ended up being the bartender that night which was still a lot of fun.