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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July 2011
  • 24/7/11: Plenty of activity this week. Including fixing storm damage from last weekend, lots of snow shovelling, working on the wind farm fibre optic cable and helping the Americans with their satellite station which also got a fierce battering in the storm. The 6-day working week is just not long enough to get everything done, so Sunday ends up being a paperwork catch up day. Not that I'm complaining of course; I'd sooner be doing something productive as opposed to sitting idle. Certainly hasn't been a problem so far and I think it'll be much of the same for the foreseeable future. With the August winter flights now only three weeks away, it's only going to get even busier.

    Good news is that Steve L from Downer Engineering is coming down in October to help me fit a brand new satellite antenna tracking system. The current system is unreliable so is currently not used; fortunately the satellite we access is stationary in the sky, so the antenna stays fixed in one position. The tracking system can move the 9.1 metre diameter antenna to follow satellites in inclined orbit; giving us more options in terms of available satellites if the existing one were to fail without warning. It's happened before.

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    The door and wooden deck outside my workshop after a significant amount of snow shovelling. The outside doors are all emergency fire exits so always need to be kept clear.

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    Rear view of the main plant room/power house. It also took a lot of shovelling as the snow was completely covering the door (left of centre). The fuel tank right of centre holds the kerosene based AN-8 fuel which is used in the boilers and diesel generators. Ordinary diesel becomes thick and waxy in these sub zero temperatures.

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    Inside, on the opposite of the wall seen above, are the three AN-8 fuel filters and flow meters. The rear most filter is for the boilers which run continuously for heating. The fuel at -25 degrees C flowing through the metal pipes causes condensation to freeze against the metalwork. The bottom two filters are for the two diesel powered generators which are used infrequently.

    Black_Island_telemetry.jpg (34566 bytes)
    Another project on the go is more new telemetry systems for remote radio sites. This unit will live at the Black Island HF receiver site and will monitor battery voltage, solar charging current, site temperature and provides the ability to remotely control the radio equipment. Designing and building such equipment is often only half the work. Everything needs to be documented; it's this often invisible part of the job which can soak up significant time. An example of the documentation generated is the schematic diagram seen here.

    Broken_GPS_mount.jpg (64724 bytes)
    Following the storm last weekend, some science instruments stopped working including the Malaysian GPS research programme on Crater Hill and some equipment using large HF antennas. Yesterday the wind finally died away leaving the opportunity to inspect the damage at Crater Hill. Fortunately all of our radio equipment and antennas were in perfect condition. Although the Malaysian's GPS antenna appears to have been erased from existence. The photo above is all that remains; the broken GPS antenna mount on top of the communications tower at Crater Hill. Winds were estimated to be greater than 180km/hr.

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    On the way back from Crater Hill, the fibre optic and power cable between Scott Base and our satellite station was due for a check over. Part of the cable runs down a steep glacier which is notorious for stretching the cable in ice and snow movement. In this area the cable is supported on 1.5m tall metal posts (pictured above) to keep it above the snow, but the snow drifts can easily be several metres deep, completely burying the cable.

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    Here's the front of the hospital at McMurdo Station; photo taken yesterday as I was walking past at 1PM on the way to a meeting. I'm pleased we're not the only ones with lots of snow burial issues.

  • 17/7/11: As it's just under a month before the brief winter flights period around the 20th of August, there's been a ramp up in efforts in the Antarctic Heritage Trust workshop as three of the four members are leaving on the late August flights. They're working hard with the conservation of artefacts from Captain Ernest Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds to stop them deteriorating any further. There are many items of clothing which are mostly in the condition they were left in 100 years ago. There's a surprising amount of canned food and boxed flour and corn. The metal cans are probably about 95 years past their best before date, most of the contents is now just black... stuff. The 100 year old corn still looks like corn, but it's mouldy and smells incredibly bad when they thaw it out. Best to avoid the Scott Base field centre during days they're thawing old food artefacts.

    The Antarctic Heritage Trust keep an interesting weekly blog of what they get up to, plus general life at Scott Base. I think they were getting desperate for things to write about, so they wrote an entry about my casual job as the Scott Base radio DJ.

    Aside from lots of work in the engineering department, there's nothing notably eventful going on, but we are in the middle of the largest storm I've seen yet with a lot of snow and very strong winds. Winds are forecast to gust to 80 knots (148km/hr) this evening. McMurdo Station has a dedicated weather forecaster on site who produces daily forecasts. The stormy report for today is here. The current Scott Base weather can be seen online here. We're currently sitting on an unusually warm -14.4C and 54 knots of wind.

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    A photo taken a few minutes ago of snow being forced in through a tiny gap in the seal of a hallway door.

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    Here's the inside view of the Scott Base frequency converter. Here on Ross Island there's a joint effort of producing power (combination of wind and diesel) between us and the Americans at McMurdo Station. Unfortunately Americans like to do things differently as we all know; hence they have quite different voltage and frequency standards. As McMurdo has the largest energy production on the island, over 6.8MW, the power grid runs at 60Hz while the NZ standard that Scott Base uses is 230V/440V, three phase, 50Hz. The frequency converter, pictured above, consists of a large 3.3kV to 440V step-down transformer (rear) and a 60Hz to 50Hz frequency converter (in cabinets on the left). Its total capacity is around 200kW and can supply all of the Scott Base power from the grid; or when we're generating locally, can export power onto the grid.

    OTDR_trace.jpg (61162 bytes)
    The power grid and wind farm has a very complex and comprehensive control and monitoring system which communicates by data over a fibre optic cable network. One of the cables developed a problem this week which I ended up working on. The image above is from a test instrument known as an OTDR - optical time domain reflectometer. It works by sending pulses of laser down the optical fibre and plotting reflections on the display as seen above. Using this method you can very accurately work out cable lengths, where cable faults are and the optical loss over the cable. The red trace (top) shows a good fibre; the near horizontal line means very little optical loss. The green trace is of a faulty fibre; the downward slope indicating a very high optical loss. The sharp spike in the trace is the laser reflection from the end of the 1401m long cable.

    Pressure_ridges_13-7-11_flash.jpg (89842 bytes)
    The above image of the new sea ice pressure ridges developing at the front of Scott Base was taken by Molly last Wednesday. The camera flash illuminates the ice through the darkness. Compare with the long exposure image below.

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    Same pressure ridge as above, but with Molly's camera on long exposure. It was almost a full moon, so a significant amount of ambient light. The photo looks like the middle of the day, but we're still in constant darkness.

  • 10/7/11: Not as eventful as last week, but still busy with work as always. We were going to have an indoor mini-golf tournament today (Sunday) but it ended up being postponed due to a sewerage problem. A blocked pipe has kept the water engineer busy for the past few days; a couple of unblocking attempts ended up spraying the corridors with raw sewage! On the plus side, it was a lovely warm morning (-22C) today with no wind, so ideal for a maintenance walk up Crater Hill with some much needed exercise in the process. I'm getting fat with too much indoor work and way too much nice food.

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    The exposure on my camera is not nearly long enough, but here's the top of Crater Hill at 1:30PM. I have enhanced the brightness of the image a little, although it's actually much lighter than it looks; almost enough light to read by. The half moon shines enough light to walk around quite comfortably. Just on the horizon is a faint glimmer of light from the sun, clearly visible in the image. In the foreground is one of the antenna towers with a 4-element VHF yagi antenna in the centre of the image. The dark ridge in the background is the peak of Crater Hill with the shadowy outline of Mt Erebus just visible to the right of that.

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    Typical Antarctica weather; barely a breath of wind on the way to Crater Hill but fairly windy when due to leave a couple of hours later. Hence you always need to be prepared for these nasty conditions. The photo above of me preparing to leave the Crater Hill hut for Scott Base.

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    A remote equipment alarm from the Satellite Earth Station meant a site visit on Saturday. Turns out one of the power supply modules in the controller for the antenna receive signal amplifiers had died. Pity; the American made Vertex satellite equipment really is top quality gear, only to be let down by a very nasty Chinese made power supply. Fortunately it has two power supplies for redundancy (the "Danger" boxes on the right). Being a live system that continually carries traffic; most work needs to be performed without taking the equipment off-line. Dropping a screw into the live equipment has the potential for a lot of bad things to happen; obviously you need to be especially careful.

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    Plus time for a quick fibre optic cable inspection on the way back from the satellite station. It's a bit trickier to do in the darkness, you frequently find yourself getting quite disorientated wandering about in the middle of nowhere. Hence it's important to be familiar with the area and keep in regular radio contact. Photo above of the fibre and power cables entering culvert pipes at a road crossing. The snow here is about a metre deep.

  • 3/7/11: An eventful week with a medical evacuation flight on Thursday to take a sick American to Christchurch hospital. Even though the aircraft was on the ice runway for 30 minutes or so, we were fortunate enough to receive a limited delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables and a mail bag with a few small urgent parts that were scheduled for delivery in August.

    It's been work at Scott Base as usual, but the Americans celebrated their Independence Day over this 2-day weekend with a carnival, charity auction and a live music party at McMurdo Station. Our Scott Base band performed a number of songs; my lead vocals on the Talking Heads Psycho Killer turned out better than I'd expected as we only began playing the song a few days earlier, so not a lot of time for practice.

    Telemetry_temperature_testing.jpg (62902 bytes)
    Speaking of work as usual, here's a radio telemetry unit design being tested in our special environmental testing chamber, also known as sticking it out the door. The temperature probe reads -29.3C. The wallpaper in the radio workshop is always a point of interest.

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    A metre away from the environmental testing chamber is the view from my workshop desk. Suppose I should tidy it up a bit. Satellite system documentation work on the left computer. System monitor of the 50V DC power system on the right computer.

    Turbine_aurora.jpg (105745 bytes)
    A long exposure photo from the wind turbine site showing a spectacular mid-day aurora. The base of a wind turbine in the foreground with the controller shed on the left and Landcruiser on the right. The American's microwave linking antenna in the red and white radome on the right. Credit to Molly for the photo.