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

Anthony-ScottBase-small.jpg (10124 bytes)
July 2013
  • 28/7/2013: Perhaps the main highlight of the week is finally completing the mammoth task of updating the copper cable records. This involved validating what circuit runs on any given copper cable pair, of which there are over 2000, then correcting the details accordingly in a giant spread sheet. Fortunately most of isn't too tricky, but then you'll find a certain pair connected to something unusual to which the records bear no resemblance. So then you spend hours crawling under floors and through ceiling spaces trying to find where the circuit runs and what it connects to. This sometimes opens another can of worms which you spend another day or two figuring out and correcting. So checks on each of the 2000+ copper pairs can take anywhere between a few seconds to several days each to check and record. Yes, it is indeed as boring as it is time consuming. One of those tasks you know you are inevitably going to have to do at some stage, but you end up procrastinating like crazy in the futile efforts to avoid it. Fortunately that's done now and it's on to slightly less mundane things.

    I was surprised that many of the Americans seem to have a birthday about now-ish, there are around five of them celebrating birthdays this week or next. There's always a small number of Americans who become regular visitors to Scott Base, so of these people, they like to come over here to Scott Base for a bit of a party. There was one such event last night which seemed to go well enough. By now you'll be thinking that all we do in the weekends is party. Yep, that'd be right.

    Though I had to have an early night, as did a few others. It's that time in the season you're often feeling very tired during the day, even after a good night of sleep. The constant darkness and mundane list of work doesn't help matters.

    SPOT_party_20-7-13.JPG (196455 bytes)
    Speaking of parties each weekend, here's a photo from the South Pole Traverse Party at McMurdo on Saturday last week. Our band here is Horace (left) on bass, Zac (out of view) on drums, myself (centre) on guitar and vocals, Harry on harmonica and Jason (right) on guitar and vocals. I'm not entirely sure why they had the chain link fence in front of the stage but it added character while reminding me of that Rawhide scene in Blues Brothers. Horace said to me "Darn, I ain't played behind a fence since the 70s, and we sure did need it in those days!" You'll see the sign on the fence that reads "No throwing beer at band", which of course actually means to throw as much as possible. I was doused in spray from ricocheting cans on numerous occasions.

    PowerHouse_July2011.JPG (133173 bytes)
    I'm often asked if this season is more enjoyable than the 2010-2011 season. Each season is certainly different due to the different projects you have on and the different mix of people you're living with. For example, in 2011 we had a number of musicians at Scott Base, so we played a lot of music here over that winter. There's very few this season, so instead I've ended up playing a lot of music with the Americans instead, which isn't a bad thing. Another difference is significantly less snow accumulation. Practically every couple of weeks in 2011 we'd be spending hours digging 3-metre drifts of snow out of doorways. The photo from above is from this time two years ago; the result of an hours digging snow away from the main power house fire exit.

    Outside_door_July2013.JPG (114501 bytes)
    This year in comparison to winter 2011, we've had much less snow accumulation in general and fewer storms. There's always blowing snow which quickly covers things as soon as you shovel it clear. But generally the snow accumulation outside doorways isn't much more than 10cm or so.

    DC_filter.JPG (105985 bytes)
    As mentioned, with the tedious and laborious job of the copper cable records now out of the way, I'm finally onto more interesting things; though not much more interesting. Yesterday's effort was designing and building a DC power filter for the Mt Erebus repeater. Probably more annoying than it is interesting, but I guess that's part of the job.

  • 21/7/2013: Only three weeks to go until the first of the winter flights in mid-August where some of the Antarctic Heritage Trust staff have a bit of a swap out and we hopefully receive some fresh food.

    We're at that inevitable time in the season where everyone is more forgetful than normal, tempers are shorter than usual and people seem somewhat less sociable. After dinner time at 7PM I'm almost always wandering around Scott Base by myself in search of anyone. Presumably a lot of people retreat to their bedrooms to read or see movies, I'm not really sure. Not that the bedrooms are a great place to hang out, they're very small - enough area to sleep and that's about it.

    I suspect they're going through the same thing at McMurdo Station over the hill, though the Americans have a fantastic large pool of resources available so are able to host some kind of fun large social event every couple of weeks or so to keep people interested and provide the opportunity to let your hair down and have a good time. Last night featured the South Pole Traverse Party, hosted in the McMurdo Traverse Workshop. As always, the Americans made a good job of supplying party food, refreshment and beers. There were some good sets of live music performed, including my band which included one of the American ladies as a guest vocalist in a Joan Jett song. I'd post a few photos of the event, but as usual when you're creating the action as opposed to observing it, taking photos is always an issue.

    Actually I've been slack all week as far as photos go, so today I've resorted to pilfering some of Molly's photos - which is probably a good thing since he actually cares about photography and goes to some effort to take nice pictures, unlike myself. For me, the week has been filled with more documentation work, which included updating records of thousands of copper cable pairs that have been neglected badly in recent years. These records detail what cable pairs carry what data, telephone or public address circuit to what location and how it connects to other circuits. Without good records, you're just dealing with a nightmarish spaghetti juntion of cables; which unfortunately is an all too regular part of this job at times.

    ScottBase_MDF.JPG (222282 bytes)
    This is the MDF or Main Distribution Frame in the back corner of my workshop. It uses a combination of Krone punch-down blocks from the Nortel telephone exchange (left) and AT&T type 110 punch-down blocks (right) for distribution. From this central point there are dozens of 50-pair cables that branch out out to secondary distribution frames throughout Scott Base and many of the remote sites and buildings. Most of my week, and probably all of next, is being consumed by updating records of these thousands of copper circuits. These carry all telephone circuits around Scott Base and abroad, public address system, data circuits and more, including interconnections with McMurdo Station.

    Frozen_face_Molly.JPG (214413 bytes)
    So this photo and the ones below this week are all from our electrician Molly, pictured above. It looks as though he's been doing more outside work. It has been a little nippy this week with temperatures hovering around -30C.

    Another_winterover_photo.JPG (221410 bytes)
    I'd almost forgotten we had to endure yet another annoying winter staff photo because a few people didn't like any of the many others that had been taken over the season. Anyway, it turned out that this one, virtually identical to another that was taken a few weeks back, wasn't any good for some reason either. I really am at snapping point with the winter photo, you've got to draw the line or you're spending every waking moment trying to do photos. Give me a crayon and a piece of scrap paper and I'll scribble a winter-over photo, I don't care.

    SB_sign_Jul2013.JPG (223565 bytes)
    And here's another photo of the new Scott Base sign which was put up to replace the old one in January.

    ScottBase_13-7-13.JPG (232239 bytes)
    Despite the fact we're still about a month away from seeing the first sunrise since April, the sky is slowly getting lighter at mid-day. In the sky above Scott Base, you can easily make out the ice shelf and the cloudless horizon (on an angle).

    Mikes_birthday_cake.JPG (154254 bytes)
    Mike celebrated his 30th birthday recently. So in Scott Base tradition, Damian the chef made him a special cake. Since Mike works in field support, this cake is in the shape of a polar tent.

    McMurdo_new_firetruck.JPG (144129 bytes)
    OK, I'm thinking of a word beginning with 'f' and ending in 'uck'. That's right; this is a flash new firetruck at McMurdo Station. They bought two of these last summer to replace their older trucks. They cost a lot of money and came with a variety of teething issues, such as the inability to put the thing into reverse gear!

  • 13/7/2013: It's been fairly quiet on the social event front this week, though as usual, everyone has been battling on throughout the working week. It's the monthly two-day weekend just now, which comes at a good time. Things have been fairly busy recently and most people have been noticeably more tired than usual. Except for Tim the sleepy Hobbit who is always tired anyway. I was fortunate enough to see him in a very rare wide-awake state this morning, running around with a camera and tripod as there was reportedly a large aurora outside. Hmm, I should tell him there's an aurora in the network documentation cabinet and see if I can catch a glimpse of motivation. Fortunately I'm not a fan of auroras at all. For so much hype and promise, they deliver so little in the form of a pitiful green glow in the sky. The first and last time I saw one in winter 2011 I was so infuriatingly disappointed that I decided that it was far better to remain focused on productive stuff; after all, it's what I'm paid to do. As opposed to sprinting out the door with a cluster of photography equipment as nearly everyone else seems intent on doing on an all too often basis.

    Weather wise it was a stormy start to the week with winds nearing 40 knots and ambient temperatures below -40C. On Tuesday evening we were having a quiet drink at the bar before bed time, then at 10:45PM we were suddenly plunged into darkness. It turned out overhead power lines at McMurdo Station were damaged in the storm which caused our AC power supply to fail. For these occasions we have various battery backed up systems in place and it only took a few minutes to get one of our 200kW generators running to restore power. Meanwhile, the McMurdo lines people worked hard in the freezing stormy conditions to fix the power line faults. I admire their efforts, it's not easy working outside even in good weather at this time of the year.

    Skidoo_winter_service.JPG (169696 bytes)
    The vehicle workshop is filled with Skidoos and other vehicles which are receiving their annual winter service.

    Graeme-blower_rebuild.JPG (161799 bytes)
    Graeme is fixing a failure of one of the blowers from the waste water treatment plant. These high volume air pumps push oxygen rich air through the waste water to help the good bacteria break down solid waste particles.

    WWTP_blower.JPG (124207 bytes)
    The waste water plant blower is a vane pump which has carbon vanes (blades) that fit into the slots of the circular rotor shown above. The problem was that the front bearing had become worn and so the front face of the rotor above was grinding into the end housing. Circular scratch marks can be seen on the end of the rotor. It didn't take Graeme long to replace the bearings and get everything working normally again.

    Molly-motor_repair.JPG (148787 bytes)
    In the electrical workshop, Molly is repairing a damaged terminal block from a three phase motor. There's always something in need of attention.

    Damian-kitchen_cleaning.JPG (106079 bytes)
    It's also that time in the season where the kitchen gets its annual deep clean, which Damian the chef is not enjoying. One of the problems is that most industrial cleaning products cause damage to the good bacteria in the waste water treatment plant, so they are trialling a range of new organic and "treatment plant friendly" cleaning products. Damian is frustrated that many of these products don't shift a year's worth of built-up grease as well as the more aggressive "treatment plant un-friendly" cleaning products do.

    Codan_7004_receiver.JPG (89723 bytes)
    Meanwhile, I'm correcting design problems with the HF receiver speech detector modules made by Hayden, who was doing my job last winter. Unfortunately he 'ran out of time' and didn't generate any documentation. And his replication of an existing design had a number of problems which meant the modules didn't work so well. So I've spent the week figuring out what he'd done and then correcting the modules, which detect the presence of human speech in audio from the receiver, then activate a UHF FM transmitter that sends the received audio to Scott Base. The receiver above is a Codan model 7004, designed in 1972. These single side-band receivers are still working well after 35 years.

  • 7/7/2013: What a fun week. Genuinely fun as opposed to sarcastic 'fun' as is usually the case. Rex and Ray from NASA gave a quick tour of their ground station which included seeing the 9 metre antenna in action while automatically tracking a polar orbiting satellite.

    The Americans celebrated their annual 4th of July Independence Day festivities on Friday with a large party that included a variety of activities including a chili cook-off, pie eating contest, Human Jenga, beer tasting contest, mini-golf and a fund raising auction followed by some live music performances. Our water engineer, Graeme, won the judge's vote for the chili competition. He'd also won the chili contest at Ice Stock on the 31st of December six months ago. Scott Base had donated several items for the auction, including a 2 litre tub of ice cream that sold for US$25, a lettuce plant from our hydroponics that sold for US$100 and a bottle of Jagermeister from the bar which cost NZ$42 and sold for US$600. Some of those Americans would appear to have too much disposable income.

    I'd been trying hard to get tickets to the Fleetwood Mac concert in Auckland NZ in December as a number of us were very keen to see them, but unfortunately tickets to the two shows had sold out within minutes of going on sale and we missed out. Unless you had one of the fastest internet connections in New Zealand (ours is probably among the slowest, unless there are any cave dwellers using 1200 baud modems) then you had no hope of buying a ticket. Fortunately a third show was announced, and Graeme's wife, Lorraine had a friend with a decent internet connection and the right kind of credit card, so I was ecstatic to hear that we now have tickets!

    NASA_MG1_Jul2013.jpg (116497 bytes)
    Visiting NASA's ground station on Friday afternoon. The Kevlar radome houses the 9M diameter antenna which automatically downloads data from polar orbiting satellites passing overhead then sends it off over the internet to the satellite's owner.

    Tim_ArrivalHeights_Aurora.jpg (158810 bytes)
    Tim, our science technician/Hobbit took a decent aurora photo from Arrival Heights during the week with a fish eye camera lens. Click on the image for a larger view.

    BenAdkison_Aurora.jpg (94820 bytes)
    While on the subject, Ben, one of the Americans from McMurdo Station also took a fantastic panoramic photo from the top of Observation Hill. Click on the photo to see the full thing. McMurdo Station on the left side of the cross, our 1MW wind farm is the two red lights on Crater Hill just to the right of the cross, Scott Base is the lights to the right and below the wind farm. Aurora just visible in the clouds at the far right.

    CraterHill_T-Site_Oct2012.jpg (118819 bytes)
    To add a bit of perspective via a crappy photo tour from photos I took in early summer, this is the centre of the enlarged view from above with Crater Hill in the centre and the wind farm visible. Mt Erebus far left.

    ObservationHill_view_Oct2012.jpg (93746 bytes)
    This shows the spot where Ben would have taken the photo (2nd above) from, the sea ice runway visible centre left on the ocean. Black Island in the distance where our HF radio receiver site is.

    Human_Jenga1.jpg (301106 bytes)
    In case you were still wondering what the "Human Jenga" element of the American's Independence Day party was, a picture tells a thousand words. Essentially you stack wooden boxes under your feet in an effort to get as high as possible before the stack topples from beneath you. The guy below throws up boxes one at a time as you need them. There's a safety rope so you don't end up diving face first into the concrete.

    Human_Jenga2.jpg (324340 bytes)
    Another view of the Human Jenga in action. The party was held in the McMurdo VMF (Vehicle Maintenance Facility). Thanks to Sue from AHT for this photo and the one above.

    Independence_Day_party_music.jpg (169666 bytes)
    We were the second set of the two bands that night. Our performance included a collection of music from CCR, Tom Petty, ELO and more. I wasn't booed off stage so my vocals can't have been as bad as I thought. My band has adopted the name of The Johnny 5 Five and consists of Horace just visible on the far left on bass, Harry on harmonica, myself on vocals and lead guitar, Zac on drums, Jason (right) on vocals and second guitar.