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. While the majority of the summer season has been and gone, it appears that I may be required to stay on to complete the remainder of the season to October 2016 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)
January 2016
  • 31/1/2016: I've been back at Scott Base for just over a week now. It's surprising how quickly I dropped back into the usual routine. The first couple of days felt a bit weird, but now I've almost forgotten about summer in Christchurch and it's as though I've not been away for three months.

    Fortunately the workload is now under control again. The trickiest bit was getting to grips with the outstanding jobs and what state things were in. So as you'd expect, the urgent stuff got dealt with first and the to-do list whiteboard now has a few gaps in it.

    The Scott Base summer season is rapidly winding down with many science events returning from the field and returning to New Zealand. A few final activities such as the annual rigging maintenance visit is just beginning. Plus over the week we had some visitors that included Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister, Bill English, plus Minister of Transport, Energy and Resources, Simon Bridges. The ministers were both good fun to have about, they were only too keen to fit in with everyone else with a few drinks at the bar after work and seeing the variety of daily work throughout Scott Base.

    Next week my end of summer helicopter work begins with the removal of a temporary radio site and repairs to our remote HF receiver site. Never any shortage of things to be done.....

    Herc_flight_path_20-1-16.jpg (47966 bytes)
    My ex co-worker from Tait Electronics, Vaughan, sent this interesting plot of our second failed LC-130 flight on Wednesday the 20th. Vaughan works on the flight RADAR systems for Airways, so he's easily able to see what flights are doing. In the image above, you can see that the plane took off from Christchurch Airport (CHP) to the north, began the south bound flight route before turning back to Christchurch just 10 minutes into the flight after the aircraft started smoking yet again.

    Polar_Star_in_ice_channel.jpg (43983 bytes)
    The US icebreaker, Polar Star, keeping the ice channel open for the container ship that arrived on Monday. Since then the plant operators, cargo handlers and Field Centre crew have been working 24-hour shifts to unload 60-something containers and re-load containers for waste being returned to New Zealand. The entire operation was finished in around four days. The Americans at McMurdo Station are equally as busy; in comparison they're dealing with literally hundreds of containers to and from the ship.

    Field_Centre_warm_porch_earthworks.jpg (98732 bytes)
    Meanwhile Leighs Construction are solidly working on stage two of the Field Centre expansion. The earthworks shown above are the beginning of the new warm porch. Materials for this have arrived on the ship and construction is due to begin over the next few weeks, with the framing and panelling expected to be completed in early April.

    Container_dock_construction_beginning.jpg (94442 bytes)
    And on the western end of the Field Centre, construction has just begun on the new container lab dock. As with the warm porch above, the major construction is scheduled to be finished in early April. Internal fit out is planned from August onwards so that the new facilities are ready for the beginning of the 2016/2017 season in October.

    Erebus_and_Willies_Road.jpg (105888 bytes)
    The view north to Mt Erebus on the left, Mt Terror on the right and the very slushy road to William's Field in the centre.

    View_downhill_to_SB.jpg (91125 bytes)
    Last Sunday was a great opportunity for a walk up and over the hill for a routine inspection of the power cable and fibre optic route from Scott Base to the Satellite Earth Station. The sea ice surrounding Scott Base on Pram Point has many melt pools, but no sign of breaking out to open water as yet.

    T-Site_glacier_cable_run.jpg (142646 bytes)
    The power cable and fibre run down from T-Site glacier towards the Satellite Earth Station. In winter the snow is at least another metre deeper than what it is here. The metal elevations keep it out of the snow pack to prevent the downhill movement of the snow from damaging the cables.

    Arrival_Hts_melt_pools.jpg (151818 bytes)
    This is the warmest time of the season, with daily temperatures often above freezing. These large melt pools are usually solid ice lakes except for this time of the year. I took the opportunity to move cables out of the water to minimise the risk of damage. It's a lot easier just to lift the cable out of the water now than it is to spend weeks trying to chisel away solid ice in the middle of winter to fix a cable problem.

    Arrival_Hts_road_into_McMurdo.jpg (135902 bytes)
    Walking back to Scott Base via McMurdo Station. The Americans are also into that dry and dusty time of the year. I had to drop off some antennas that I'd hand carried down on the flight last week to some friends working at NASA's McMurdo Ground Station.

    Bill_English_in_workshop.jpg (163697 bytes)
    I interviewed Ministers Bill English and Simon Bridges on my 9AM radio show on Scott Base 97FM during the week. As opposed to asking the hard questions, I took the less curly approach of just talking a bunch of crap and making up questions as we went along; was quite a laugh. Afterwards I put Deputy Prime Minister Bill to work on my computer to record a new promotion for the radio show. A day afterwards in an evening Q & A session, I asked our visitors what their favourite radio station on the Antarctic continent was, to which they unanimously agreed on Scott Base 97FM. Nice to have the full patronisation of parliament for my radio show!

  • 24/1/2016: And after another 24-hour weather delay, we eventually had an incident free seven and a half hour flight from Christchurch to Scott Base on Friday the 22nd. It's been quite surreal to return at this time of year as half of my mind is still in winter mode where the ground is frozen, daytime temperatures are around -20C, not many people about; while the other half of my mind is enjoying beers and barbeques in my garden at home in Christchurch. Instead it's the middle of the Antarctic summer where the ground outside is dry and dusty, daily temperatures are a shorts and T-shirt zero degrees Celsius and the place is bustling with activity. Fortunately I already knew most of the staff and event visitors on station, so it's certainly a step better than walking directly into the unknown. I'm rapidly fitting back into the daily routines of life at an Antarctic research station.

    I'm also still coming to grips with a lot of work to sort out. Because my counterpart, Grumps, was evacuated to NZ at short notice, there are various jobs left in partially completed states. And in the two weeks between him suddenly going to McMurdo Hospital and myself arriving, there has still been science events getting issued radio equipment by people who don't understand the systems we have in place for this, so the desk in front of me is littered with dozens of scraps of paper with cryptic notes and numbers scribbled down. In addition to that, there have been a number of recent network equipment failures needing urgent attention. Never a dull moment.

    LC-130_at_Willies_Field.jpg (94158 bytes)
    The LC-130 having just landed at William's Field on Thursday afternoon after the relatively pleasant seven and a half hour flight from Christchurch. Fortunately this particular aircraft was significantly less smoky than the one we'd been playing musical chairs with earlier in the week.

    Ivan_at_Willies_Field.jpg (106790 bytes)
    Another first, my first ride on Ivan. Since I've always been arriving as part of summer main body or leaving at the end of winter, we've always travelled in the Scott Base Toyota Land Cruisers. There was around six of us bound for Scott Base, so no problem to catch a lift with the 30-something Americans.

    Kerre_driving_Ivan.jpg (114184 bytes)
    Another familiar face from previous seasons, here's Kerre from McMurdo shuttles driving Ivan with much enthusiasm.

    Willies_skiway.jpg (89492 bytes)
    Crossing the William's Field skiway on our sweet ride.

    Road_from_Willies.jpg (87410 bytes)
    You know that Talking Heads song, Road to Nowhere? Yeah, well it's not about this road, which leads to Scott Base and McMurdo Station. The road is compacted snow, which is turning very slushy in these warm daytime temperatures, often above zero degrees C.

    Back_at_Scott_Base.jpg (100657 bytes)
    20-30 minutes from William's Field is the approach to Scott Base. It was certainly a mixed feeling moment. Part of me was wondering how the hell I'm back here so soon, while it also had that exciting feeling of returning home. After all, I've spent significantly more time living at Scott Base than in New Zealand since 2010.

    SES_receiver_rack.jpg (129132 bytes)
    Straight into work yesterday. Here's a substandard photo of the receiver rack at the Satellite Earth Station during a job.

    View_SW_from_SES.jpg (101290 bytes)
    Looking south-west out the door of the Satellite Earth Station across the McMurdo Ice Shelf; Mt Discovery to the left. I forgot how easy it is to do outside work at this time of the year when the weather is nice.

  • 20/1/2016: Three days later and I'm still in Christchurch after a series of flights dramas. Tuesday's departure went to schedule, though an hour into the eight hour flight there was an alarmingly strong smell of burning avionics equipment. The US Air Force crew quickly tried the find the cause of the issue while we turned around and landed at Christchurch two hours after take-off.

    The flight was rescheduled for this morning and overnight they'd "repaired" the aircraft. After a number of 2-hour weather delays we were in the air again a little after 1PM. 10 minutes later the ominously familiar strong burning smell returned and the plane was hastily turned around, arriving back in Christchurch after about 30 minutes into the air. The backup plan was to wedge us into the cargo flight that was scheduled for later this afternoon, but that too was cancelled due to the snowy weather at Ross Island that wasn't clearing.

    So third time lucky tomorrow??

    Loading_LC-130.JPG (129153 bytes)
    This is the view inside the tightly packed LC-130 Hercules a few hours ago, shortly before our significantly shorter than expected flight.

  • 17/1/2016: In only three months to the day, I wasn't expecting to be writing another lot of these HTML pages so soon. As friends and family may have heard, I was contacted during the week regarding the ill health of my counterpart at Scott Base, who was being returned to New Zealand for diagnosis and treatment. Hence the urgent request to have someone resume his duties at very short notice. It's been a hectic few days filled with the necessary organisation that needs to be made before leaving the country for up to nine months.

    It is possible that my counterpart will make a rapid recovery and remain in good health for the minimum time required before retuning prior to winter, so it may be possible that I'll only be required at Scott Base until March or April. However, given the strict medical clearances required to live and work partially isolated in Antarctica for six months until the beginning of the main body summer flights in October, his short term return to Scott Base would seem unlikely.

    Of course this means I need to prepare for not only a rapid deployment south from my home in Christchurch, but to plan ahead for the next nine months. In the more usual situation, you have many months to do all this, but in no time at all I have to try to figure out what to do with existing customer work in progress and other contract work I had partially committed to.

    With my lengthy to-do list now almost in the clear, I might just about be able to pull it off. On Tuesday, in less than two days time, I'm due to be on the LC-130 ski Hercules bound for an all too familiar icy continent.

    LC-130_landing.jpg (62040 bytes)
    Depending on the weather and mechanical breakdowns, this is supposed to be my scene in under two days time; an eight-hour LC-130 ski Herc flight from Christchurch all the way back to where I was hoping not to be for at least another year. Oh well, my 3-month break was nice while it lasted.