Amiga Technical Resource

Working in Antarctica

In September 2012 I began a second 13-month contract as the Scott Base communications engineer for Antarctica NZ, Telecom NZ and Downer Engineering. Six months of sunlight, six months of darkness, temperatures of +3 to -50degC, interesting people and varied work are just some of the many features of spending a year in this icy environment.

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, 2014-2015 and 2016 seasons are also available.

Select month to view:
September 2012 October 2012 November 2012 December 2012 January 2013 February 2013 March 2013 April 2013 May 2013 June 2013 July 2013 August 2013 September 2013 October 2013

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January 2013
  • 27/1/2013: The bustle of activity calmed down earlier the week after the departure of the Prime Minister and associates. Then shortly after came the news of a missing aircraft that sparked a large search and rescue operation between Scott Base and McMurdo. In the last couple of days we've had three large scale science events return from the field, so Scott Base is nearly filled to capacity once more. Many of them are scheduled to fly out early next week, after which the countdown to winter is set to begin. It's only a couple more weeks until most of the summer staff will leave for NZ. While it'll be sad to see many of these great people go home, some peace and quiet will be most welcome.

    Cake_boat.jpg (160589 bytes)
    As part of the Prime Minister's visit and Scott Base's 56th birthday, various Scott Base staff had worked for days to create this fantastic cake in the shape of Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance.

    Ski_field_fresh_snow.jpg (116790 bytes)
    The ski field was lovely after the fresh snow from last weekend!

    Crater_Hill_power_cable.jpg (129284 bytes)
    At long last, the new power cable installation to our Crater Hill radio site is underway. The existing cable is many years past its best before date.

    Wind_farm_sea_ice_melt.jpg (95273 bytes)
    The sea ice is going through its annual thaw with large pools of water clearly visible (centre). This was also the location of the sea ice runway/McMurdo airport in October/November last year. When the sea ice melts each summer, all of the airport buildings are moved to the further away Pegasus runway on the permanent ice shelf.

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    There are pools of water everywhere during the summer melt. The reflection of our Satellite Earth Station is visible in this melt pool.

  • 20/1/2013: After various delays, it's now Prime Minister Mania at Scott Base. Having John Key and his wife here is actually quite nice, although the associated 14-something media are somewhat daunting at times. I guess having a coffee with the PM in the dining room this morning was a change from the norm.

    Most of our freight that's been in transit since November has finally arrived, so special thanks to everyone who kindly sent me kites, nuts, pork crackle and craft beer before Christmas!

    One of the reasons for the Prime Minister's visit to Scott Base was for the unveiling of the new Scott Base signs. We put them up a week ago and weren't supposed to take photos of them until they were officially unveiled this morning in a ceremony with the PM and Iwi. Despite the weather which has been snowing heavily for the past two days, the ceremony went well. Scott Base sung a waiata (Maori blessing song) led by the lovely Heather on vocals and myself on guitar. Trying to keep the instrument in tune in the cold was certainly a mission, but John Key later commented to me that it turned out better than some of the many others he'd heard. Not sure if he was just being nice, but he's a genuine kind of guy. Don't have any photos of this yet, will have to try and acquire a few off the media people.

    JohnKey_SB_sign.jpg (138550 bytes)
    A photo of the new official Scott Base sign featuring Lou Sanson the Antarctica NZ CEO (left) including Prime Minister John Key (second from left).

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    The snow and cloud even cleared briefly for a photo of the new sign and Pou Whenua - which is a statue carved from totara that faces the sky.

    D4_in_snow.jpg (105263 bytes)
    We've had the first significant snowfall of the season over the past couple of days. The ground is now white and snowy instead of brown and rocky.

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    A bit of a storm a few days before the PM party arrived nearly blew the secret unveiling covers off the new sign.

  • 13/1/2013: A combination of cloudy weather and warm temperatures turning the ice shelf runway (Pegasus) to slush resulted in many delayed flights this week, but they all got here in the end. Scott Base was nearly filled to maximum capacity on Friday with 84 beds in use.

    At present we have large numbers of science events waiting on good weather to get out into the field. Thick fog yesterday put a stop to all flights but this morning it's crystal clear. The Southern Lakes Helicopters pilot was keen to work today (Sunday) to ease the backlog of flight work, but he's not allowed to fly without search and rescue support and apparently search and rescue don't work Sundays. Wow, first time I've heard of an emergency service who only work business hours. You'd be calling them up and the conversation would end with "As much as we'd love to help you out, it's our day off. Please re-schedule your emergency after 8AM Monday".

    Needless to say, my workload has increased with the arrival of the many science events. One group had some kind of GPS unit that had a power supply system resembling a large bird's nest of wires, looked as though it had been assembled in a last minute effort by an eight year old in someone's garage. So spent some time clearing that up for them. I should try and remember to take photos of these things. But just imagine a big ball of random wires and that was essentially it.

    We also have a couple of staff from Downer Engineering on site at present who are doing some long term maintenance work on the copper cable network and a few other bits.

    ArrivalHeights_Jan2013.jpg (210317 bytes)
    Here's a nice photo of Arrival Heights showing the Telecom NZ International Satellite Earth Station in the foreground. Mt Erebus partially shrouded by cloud in the background. Thanks to Mike B for the photo. He was a member of two volunteer workers sent down once per year for about a month. They generally get given painting jobs in and around Scott Base. During their stay the place has been tidied up a lot, great job.

    McMurdo_Jan2013.jpg (158971 bytes)
    A view of McMurdo Station from Mike B, probably taken from the same location as the previous photo above. Observation Hill in the centre.

    Pressure_ridges_13-12-12.jpg (150274 bytes)
    Meanwhile around Scott Base, it's that time of year when the warming temperatures starts melting the thin (approx. 2 metres) sea ice which has seen the end of vehicle and foot traffic on the sea ice for now, including the pressure ridge walk closing.

    Skua.jpg (165618 bytes)
    An Antarctic skua. No doubt about it, that thing would definitely peck your eyes out. They're a fearless scavenger bird resembling a large seagull that frequently attacks Americans as they walk around carrying plates of food.

  • 6/1/2013: We all enjoyed the three day break over new year's. This included the 9-hour Ice Stock outdoor live music festival at McMurdo on New Year's Eve. Spent a stunning day at the ski field on New Year's Day, which was mostly quiet due to a majority of Scott Base sleeping in after a big night of indulging.

    But that's the last of the long weekends and short working weeks, we're now back to the regular grind of six-day working weeks which I particularly enjoy as it's fantastic for productivity. It's truly stunning how much can be achieved by a small group of people when they have no television and limited internet access.

    January is set to ramp up with the arrival of around 54 people over three flights next week. It looks as though we'll be maxing out the bed numbers of 88 again very quickly.

    IceStock2012.jpg (198021 bytes)
    I particularly enjoyed Ice Stock, which ran from 4PM on Dec 31st to 1AM on 1st of January. The actual New Year's countdown was a minute or two out; naturally they didn't want to interrupt the song playing at the time, good call! There was also a chili cook-off which a couple of Scott Base staff entered and won the event. Neither of them were our chefs, understandably the last thing they wanted to do on their day off was more cooking.

    Skifield_new_years.jpg (140848 bytes)
    Another relaxing day at our ski field on New Year's Day.

    Plant_alarm_prototype.jpg (147121 bytes)
    Behind the scenes I have plenty of jobs queued up as always. Here's the working prototype of the new Scott Base plant alarm controller card and one alarm channel card. The last crew were supposed to have this project completed last winter, but didn't really get far which was somewhat disappointing considering I'd already done a bulk of the design and proposal work in 2011. I'm currently in the process of laying out printed circuit boards after spending several days trying to remember how to use the Protel CAD software.

    Tracking_controller.jpg (148671 bytes)
    Here's the drive system for Telecom International's satellite antenna tracking controller which was upgraded when I was last here in October 2011. The tracking system only gets used in the event that we need to use an inclined orbit or 'wobbly' satellite. I've just fitted a limit switch to the bottom of the antenna to prevent the controller from attempting to drive the antenna through the floor in the event of a malfunction. It's happened before with the old controller. Messy.

    McMurdo_alternative_art.jpg (215269 bytes)
    McMurdo Station also held their annual alternative art festival. Only saw photos of it myself, some nice pieces of work, some a bit unusual. I really can't work out where they get the time to do all of this stuff.