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

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January 2015
  • 25/1/2015: Things have certainly been happening this week; it's good to be busy again. The annual rigging crew visit went well and the guys were fantastic to work with. In addition, the field centre lower level demolition has started already with the removal of several internal walls. The science people who had been using the areas were certainly less than happy to be kicked out of their work space. Management tell them that the upcoming building rennovations are all in the name of a better science facility. Time will tell for sure.

    It's also that time of the year where the annual container ship visit is imminent, so there are various additional staff on site for packing away things to be returned to New Zealand, such as waste, older vehicles to be sold and replaced with new ones and many of the containers that failed to make it onto the ship last year when the ice pier turned to mush and collapsed part way through loading the ship. Things are a little cooler this year and the sea ice is generally in good condition, I suspect they won't have nearly as many problems this year.

    Four of our six summer-only radio sites were due for removal this week, which all went nicely. The sites are removed at the end of each summer because the absence of sunlight for solar charging and cold temperatures over winter would otherwise damage the batteries.

    We also have quite a number of invited visitors on site at present, including the NZ Secretary of Defence, Chief of Air Force and various members of the board who run Antarctica NZ. They held a formal dinner last night with the big wigs, but I opted for the significantly easier going beer and pizza night along with the other Scott Base riff-raff. And had a damn good night.

    Unusually, I seem to have taken a lot of photos from this week, so for once I've got too many images to select from instead of having to look around for someone else's photography to plunder. First up is a series of photos of the US icebreaker, the Polar Star.

    Polar_Star_icebreaking.jpg (126125 bytes)
    This is the Polar Star cutting the channel and turning circle outside McMurdo Station. The container ship is due in tomorrow, then the fuel resupply vessel a week or so later.

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    Clearing the one to two metre thick sea ice up to the edge of the ice pier. No, the captain is not drunk and ramming the pier. At least not this time. Who really knows if that's happened before or not, but why stop the truth getting in the way of a great rumour?

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    The icebreaker moored at the ice pier at Hut Point outside McMurdo Station. We were invited for a tour of the ship on Thursday evening which I would have loved to attend, but as usual I was stuck on fire crew, and bar crew. So ended up serving drinks to dozens of shouty Americans all night instead. Great, just what I'd rather be doing instead of looking at some of the coolest boats in the ocean.

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    Our helicopter pilot, Heff, was all too keen to show me the killer whales surfacing for air in the icebreaker channel on the way to a job at one of our radio sites. I wasn't fazed either way. Heff seemed more excited to be spotting then swooping on the whales with the helicopter than I was to be looking at them.

    Expired_field_food.jpg (122798 bytes)
    Here's something a bit different. One of the science groups in the field came across an ancient stash of field food in the middle of nowhere; possibly from the 1960s or earlier. And here was I complaining that we had to eat freeze-dry food that had expired in 2008. Pure luxury compared to a dinner of mystery contents waxed paper bricks and rusty tins with no labels.

    Cape_Roberts_repeater_removal.jpg (86775 bytes)
    Now for all the photos I like, but everyone else seems to hate; radio sites. We removed the temporary repeater from Cape Roberts that I installed back in October for a six-week science event that needed radio communications in an isolated area at Granite Harbour. The guy ropes were much slacker than I'd left them. It appears the wind had scoured out snow under the green box, causing it to lower and release tension on the mast stays. Everything was in perfect condition otherwise.

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    Like a million monkeys with a million typewriters producing the works of Shakespeare, if you take enough photos out of the helicopter window, one of them is eventually going to be not utter crap, as the rest of my photography generally is. This is the western side of Mt Erebus with the usually frozen waters of McMurdo Sound in the foreground.

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    A shot from yesterday afternoon of our UHF linked VHF radio site at Mt JJ Thomson overlooking the Taylor Valley in the Dry Valleys region on the Antarctic mainland. This is the most ice free region in all of Antarctica.

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    And the view of our radio site on Mt Newall, also in the Dry Valleys region. I removed the radio equipment and batteries from our three Dry Valleys sites yesterday afternoon as science in the area is finished for the season. On the right is our pilot, Heff, along with my helpers Jason and Chelsea.

    Pressure_Ridges_18-1-15.jpg (112146 bytes)
    Finally, a parting shot from the pressure ridges, which I walked last Sunday with Dan Gray, one of my ex work colleagues from Tait Electronics in Christchurch. He's working for Downer Engineering these days, as am I, and was here for six days as part of the annual rigging maintenance work.

  • 18/1/2015: It's been a reasonably eventful week; chock full of sea ice misadventures, arrival of new staff and entertaining Americans.

    Beginning on Monday, there was a Hagglund trip planned to Turtle Rock over the sea ice, which of course is in the middle of its annual melt cycle. Unfortunately the sea ice was a bit too mushy but fortunately Hagglunds are designed to float. After a short recovery operation, the new ocean-going vessel was back on dry land with no damage.

    I was particularly excited with the arrival of Mr Graeme Hooper, our water engineer from my previous season 2012/2013. He's here until April to tackle various engineering tasks. Also arriving at the same time was the two rigging staff from Downer Engineering who are working with me as part of the annual infrastructure maintenance. Plus we've just seen the arrival of eight winter project staff for the field centre rebuild project. A significant event this winter is the interior remodelling of the field centre building to improve science facilities.

    Then last night was the annual McMurdo Waste Barn party. I This is the building where all of McMurdo waste gets sorted and packed. They clean up the place and have a music/dance party there usually once per year. So our Scott Base band, Them Kiwi Sons o' Bitches played an hour long set of live music for the party which seemed to be incredibly well received.

    And starting next week, the first of the summer field staff head home, another reminder there's only a month of the summer season remaining.

    H1_boating_trip.jpg (60534 bytes)
    This is a grainy zoomed-in shot of Hagglund H1 bogged in the mushy sea ice with the helicopter helping with the vehicle recovery mission. They got it out and back home later that afternoon.

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    Looking out the front of Scott Base towards the south, the many melt pools in the sea ice clearly show that the annual sea ice melt cycle is in full swing. It's just started cooling down again this week, coolest it's been for a while yesterday with -8C.

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    The arrival of the American Polar Star icebreaker cutting a shipping lane through McMurdo Sound is a clear indication that the fuel re-supply vessel and container ship are due to arrive next week.

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    In the sea ice outside McMurdo Station, the turning circle cut by the icebreaker is clearly visible.

    Waste_Barn_party.jpg (70222 bytes)
    We performed a set of music to the densely packed Waste Barn, which was dark, hot and crowded. The audience taunted us for an encore, so we had to think of something quick to pacify the demanding party-goers. Fortunately we'd previously practised a few other songs that we decided to drop out of the set, so managed to quell the impeding riot.

  • 11/1/2015: Well the holiday season is now a distant memory and it's back to the grindstone. The end of season science started ramping up this week, and I must say it's good to have a few things happening again. Things had been a bit slow over the past couple of weeks. It's also only about a week until the first of the field support staff return home - a sure sign that the season is rapidly coming to an end.

    Unfortunately it's also that time in the season where much of the summer stuff know they only have a month or so left, so motivation levels drop off considerably. It makes it hard when working with people who no longer seem to care about doing a good job, meaning I'm frequently left with picking up the pieces after various half-arsed jobs. Nothing out of the ordinary though, it seems to happen every season.

    On the plus side we have the water engineer from my last season, Graeme Hooper, down on Tuesday for a couple of months. He's a truly superb worker and is also a lot of fun, so I'm very much looking forward to seeing someone with motivation.

    MAAG_entrance_hall.jpg (122898 bytes)
    On Thursday evening the Americans held their annual MAAG (McMurdo Alternative Art Gallery) at the Fuels Barn. You can't really see a lot from this photo, the building was fairly dark. But there was an interesting range of weird and wonderful art pieces. Unlike previous years, there was no art and crafts for sale. There's a lot of fantastic artistic talent at McMurdo Station.

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    A shot of one of the Americans' "Fuel Mules", a small fuel tanker truck that goes around the individual McMurdo buildings to refuel the diesel tanks that provide heating. Most of the McMurdo buildings don't have any form of centralised heating and so they operate independent diesel heating in most buildings.

    Hut_Point-Ice_pier.jpg (114466 bytes)
    The ice pier at McMurdo is now waiting for the re-fuel and cargo supply ships to arrive at the end of the month. The US icebreaker, the Polar Star, is currently breaking a shipping channel through the ice in McMurdo sound and is expected to arrive at McMurdo station sometime this coming week.

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    Here's a photo from someone else of the Polar Star which has paused its ice breaking to let some of the crew off for a brisk stroll around the sea ice.

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    With daily temperatures ranging from about -3C to +1C the sea ice is well into its annual melting cycle. There are many melt pools out the front of Scott Base and many seals about.

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    Another shot of the melt pools in the sea ice directly out the front of Scott Base. The black things on the sea ice are Weddell seals.

    Ski_field_11-1-15.jpg (87704 bytes)
    I wasn't on fire crew this week for once, so it was an excellent day to be out at the ski field today for some relaxing fun. With no wind, warm temperatures and good company, it was a great place to be. Other activities for today included the 42.2km marathon. No thanks.

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    We even had a couple of friendly American visitors at our ski field today. People often think that things in America are always "bigger and better" but they had this tiny Ski-Doo which looked comical with two people trying to ride it.

  • 4/1/2015: Happy New 2015. It's been kind of nice having a few days off work over the past week or so, but as I've been on fire crew, this makes it problematic to try and get off base. This requires you to find someone to stand in for your position while you're away. As it's holiday time (for some) and there have been many activities on including crevasse tours, Ski-Doo trips and ski field days, everyone understandably wants to be out and about to enjoy the activities and nice weather. Hence finding someone to stand in to allow you to get away for any reason is next to impossible. Speaking of nice days, we've just seen our first positive outside temperatures this season; the snow outside on the ground is rapidly turning into rivers of mud.

    Work wise it's been mostly uneventful. About the only technical things I've done all week is repair an angle grinder and fault find some data issues on the power grid control network. Of course that's probably expected considering this is the closest we get to a "holiday season"; a few casual days off work. Where you invariably end up working anyway.

    So New Years was a slightly different event this year. As December the 31st was on a Wednesday, the bar stayed open until midnight where most of us stayed up to welcome in the New Year. The following day was work as usual; then Friday through to today, Sunday, was a rare three-day weekend.

    It's also the time of the year where the Americans at McMurdo Station hold the annual IceStock outdoor music festival, which is enormously popular. Traditionally this is held on New Year's Eve, but to avoid a big party in the middle of the working week, they shifted it to Friday the second. But the event was still well received, as was the annual chili cook-off held at the same time. Our Scott Base band played a 30-minute set which went down well, though I had to scuttle back home soon after our early set to allow the others on fire crew substitute to attend the festival.

    Then it's back to work as usual tomorrow....

    Bruce-NewYearsBagpipes.jpg (73196 bytes)
    At the stroke of midnight on the 31st of December, our power engineer, Bruce, burst into the bar with his bagpipes and led an impromptu parade outside. It was a lovely night sky with plenty of sunshine, light winds and temperatures around -3C.

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    I'd gone to bed by the time the parade formed into a group photo outside, a few minutes into the new year of 2015.

    Chinese_heavy_lift_helicopter.jpg (54257 bytes)
    Earlier in the week, a Chinese icebreaker called into the ice edge to collect fuel drums to carry up the coast to Cape Adare for an upcoming NZ science event happening next season. The Chinese used their Russian built heavy lift helicopter to transfer nearly 5000 litres of diesel fuel in drums to their ship. Despite sounding like some kind of recipe for disaster, the entire operation went smoothly. Prior to the helicopter's arrival, we all received multiple Emails and PA announcements that the helicopter would create extreme winds, capable of blowing away rocks, bulldozers and Mt Erebus. So all the roads were closed and we were told to "remain indoors at all times and if venturing outside, must wear full PPE and obey the safety officers". In all honesty it was quite underwhelming. At worst, the maximum rotor wash may have inconvenienced a couple of loose snowflakes, and the safety officer was wearing jandals (flip-flops). Can I get my money back now?

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    See, I'm not making this up. This is Angus the flip-flop jandal wearing safety officer making sure no-one ventures outside for fear of being blown away by extreme rotor wash from the Russian built helicopter crewed by the Chinese.

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    Despite not having their usual graphics artist at McMurdo Station, the Americans still put together some fine posters and banners for the IceStock annual outdoor concert. In case you aren't already aware, the name IceStock is a play on the popular Woodstock American music festival. The Freeze Em All caption in this year's poster is of course a reference to the Metallica album, Kill Em All.

    Our band is Them Kiwi Sons o' Bitches. I'd come up with the name based on an event at IceStock a couple of years back. During the concert, the Americans put on a spit roast pig. Not wanting to appear greedy, I'd placed myself about third in the queue. I was wearing my black work clothes, which are identical to what the Americans wear. The two USA guys ahead of me were scowling at some of the Scott Base women back in the queue, obviously wearing the distinctive Scott Base black and orange jackets. They were grumbling "Look at them Kiwi sons o' bitches; they can come over here and eat our food, but we can't go over there and eat theirs!" I put on this bad American accent and said back, "Yeah, and them stupid sons o' bitches don't even know what goddamn side of the road to drive on!" The guy spun around, pointed at me and shouted back, "Yeah, that's exactly what I'm talkin' about!"

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    This is the usual stage they set up for the event, with our Scott Base band performing. I don't fully understand the reference on the banner. Of course the bottom line is from the Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime and the Master Plan is something McMurdo management have been discussing for some time regarding a long term major redevelopment of McMurdo Station. So it's probably poking fun at management, as usual.

    IceStock-Anthony_and_Alec1.jpg (170668 bytes)
    And this is me on lead guitar (left) with Alec on bass (right). Playing at IceStock was something that had been on my to-do list for some time. Doing music during summer is just hard because everyone is always so busy. You need to get the entire group together for practice sessions. But everyone always has something else on after work. Or they're working evenings. We have no music facilities here at Scott Base, so we have to use the McMurdo band room, which is nearly always booked out. Then everyone is on fire crew and can't get out. Arrgghhh! I still have no idea how we managed to pull it off, but we did.

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    Another shot of Alec and myself. Alec's mother, Lorraine, will be absolutely furious he wore his best jeans and gumboots on stage. I'm in my Carhartt work pants. Despite being fairly warm at zero degrees, the cold steel guitar strings made my fingertips numb. This is awkward because you mostly play a guitar by feel, so I had to look at what my fingers were doing since I couldn't feel them. Was like playing with bits of wax where your fingers used to be.