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

Anthony-ScottBase-small.jpg (10124 bytes)
July 2015
  • 26/7/2015: It's about that time of the season where the monotony of winter is starting to affect everyone quite badly. This is made worse by the fact that many people have been having sleeping problems due to the continuous absence of sunlight. I've had the same issues this week; you wake up with that "7 o'clock, let's get going!" feeling, only to look at the clock to realise that it's 3AM and there's no chance you're going to get back to sleep. Some people opt to start work early when this happens; it's not uncommon for someone to be up at 5AM working on something because they can't sleep. The problem then is that by afternoon you're practically a zombie. It's difficult to concentrate on anything or think properly because you're so sleepy and cranky.

    However, the good news is that the first sunrise is less than a month away, as are the 'Winfly' flights that happen around mid-August each season which brings a large number of early season staff and science people to McMurdo Station, along with food and cargo.

    Things are also fairly quiet on the recreation front. The Americans, who are usually lively with social activities, are most likely going through the same mid-winter rut as we are.

    Mid_day_light_24-7-15.jpg (82238 bytes)
    While out and about with some jobs on Friday, I caught this mid-day photo of the mostly clear sky with a bit of sunlight shining up from under the horizon. Every day is a little brighter until the first sunrise on the 19th of August.

    Arrival_heights_time_lapse_camera.jpg (198330 bytes)
    One of the jobs on Friday was a few checks at our satellite ground station at Arrival Heights after the recent stormy weather. The station itself was fine, but the time lapse camera belonging to Antarctic photographer and artist Anthony Powell that I'd set up temporarily outside our satellite station (photo above taken in February when it was installed), had blown away in the wind, despite being chained to a permanent ground anchor. The steel shackles and turnbuckle had broken in 250+km/hr winds. Fortunately I found the camera and tripod, still in good condition, a short way down the bank, so at least Anthony should have most of his intended time lapse of the sea ice formation from February until now.

    Skidoos_winter_service.jpg (142440 bytes)
    Meanwhile in the vehicle workshop, Lex is beavering away on the annual winter servicing of the fleet of 18 Ski-Doos. It's usually more work than you'd expect because these vehicles are often abused by various staff and visitors. Despite having a maximum speed rule of 30km/hr, as soon as they're out of sight of Scott Base, some people tend to develop this speed demon attitude. Lex has seen Ski-Doos with mirrors and windshields broken off and major bodywork damage, which can only be attributed to someone rolling the vehicle. Obviously management push the health and safety message very strongly and are none too impressed with this kind of behaviour, but all too often they're faced with explanations such as "It was broken when we got it, must have been bad winter servicing" and "Oh, there's no way we'd ever do something like that!"

    Lab3_almost_finished.jpg (100401 bytes)
    Lab 3 in the newly refurbished Field Centre is nearing completion. Now awaiting the arrival of the floor laying contractors in August.

    New_gymnasium.jpg (127116 bytes)
    And the newly relocated gymnasium in the Field Centre has had the equipment set up. Photo taken at 1:42PM last Friday; this may explain why it often takes so long to get simple tasks done. It's not the Antarctic Factor people keep looking to as an excuse, it's obviously because some people spend half of the work day in the gym!

  • 19/7/2015: So what's been happening this week? New telephone lines being set up for the new work areas in the Field Centre, support to various science events with fixing their stuff that keeps breaking, lots of work on the rebuilt battery charging and storage area in the vehicle workshop, and all the other stuff in between.

    The cargo flight for July eventually arrived here at 5PM yesterday from Christchurch after a number of weather delays. Two of the painting contractors left on the returning C17 aircraft, leaving us with 18 on station. The dining room table is currently littered with mail from home, plus newspapers and magazines that are less than a month old, certainly a rare treat!

    In summary, just lots of work and not much to say about it without boring everyone to tears.

    Darts_SB_vs_SouthPole.jpg (76107 bytes)
    Last Sunday in the bar, the transcontinental darts games began with Scott Base versus the South Pole. These darts games are often played between different Antarctica stations during winter, with the two stations communicating via HF radio or telephone. It relies heavily on being fairly honest with the score relayed to the opposing team as obviously they can't see what score has actually been thrown. Apparently in a previous game with one of the Australian bases, they didn't even have a dart board at their end, so they were just calling out made up numbers as a score! Well what do you expect? They were Australians.

    Hagglund_inside_snow.jpg (305372 bytes)
    Following last week's storm (see last week's entry) many of the vehicles outside have a bit of snow build up inside them. The photo above is of one of the new Hagglunds; even the brand new door seals aren't perfect, the fine snow blows in through every minor gap. The cab of the D6 bulldozer is currently a solid cube of snow inside, it's going to need a fair bit of work to shovel it out and get it running.

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    The Hagglund tracked vehicle from the previous photo is currently thawing out in the vehicle workshop cold porch to melt all of the built up snow from inside and underneath the vehicle.

    Battery_room_new_benches.jpg (99709 bytes)
    Our carpenter, Darryn, has made a fine job of refitting the vehicle workshop battery charging and storage room. The previous setup was some very rickety steel shelving which was as solid as jelly on springs. They teetered alarming with around 300kg of lead acid batteries on them. Plus the walls and floor were especially mucky from years of water from the workshop cold porch (melting snow from vehicles) and from battery acid residue. The entire setup was not very usable and especially dangerous, so it's only taken several years of me moaning to get management to approve funding for it. This is the design I completed for the float charging system nearly two years ago, although it's only just being built now.

    Painting_battery_charging_rails.jpg (109190 bytes)
    I've spent a bit of time this week cutting, drilling and painting the aluminium channels for the battery float charging system that will screw under the front edge of the battery charging benches (see previous photo). See page 2 for construction detail and how it works.

  • 12/7/2015: To say that there's always something interesting happening here at Scott Base would be a lie, though the latter half of this past week would be an exception.

    Wednesday's forecast from McMurdo Station suggested that Thursday would be a little windier than usual; wind gusts to 55 knots (100km/hr) which is certainly nothing unusual. However, they greatly under estimated the resulting hurricane. We're not sure what the peak wind speed was as it was higher than what the monitoring instruments could measure. Our best estimate is around 110 knots (200 km/hr) here at Scott Base.

    Strong winds generally aren't an issue; unlike the straw and twig structures featured throughout the Pacific Islands, the Scott Base buildings are designed to withstand extreme weather conditions. So even though you can't hear anything other than the constant roar of wind and the building is flexing and groaning, it feels safe and secure.

    Until all the power dies and the entire place is plunged into darkness.

    Ironically, we can't produce any power from the wind farm in extremely windy conditions; the turbines automatically shut down to prevent any damage. So Scott Base was operating on the diesel generated McMurdo energy grid, with a power frequency of 60Hz. Since we operate on a NZ 50Hz supply, a frequency converter system rectifies up to 200kW of 60Hz AC energy to DC, then switches it to 50Hz AC. There are very comprehensive fire detection systems throughout Scott Base, including in the frequency converter. In the frequency converter are some air vents through to the outside for cooling, though even while closed there are some tiny holes in the vent. Enough for snow dust to blow in with 90 knots of wind from the right direction. The fine mist of snow inside the frequency converter was detected as smoke, so the system immediately shut down all power.

    This in itself isn't an issue as we can manually start one of the three 180kW generators to restore power, which was done in a few minutes. But during the blackout the sea water pumps stopped; these are housed in a small building around 80m away from Scott Base and they need to be re-started locally. But following numerous failed attempts, the engineering crew couldn't make it to the pump shed; the wind was too strong to even be able to stand up outside.

    As a result of the sea water not flowing, the pipes froze. The sea water is used by the reverse osmosis plant to produce fresh water for drinking, cleaning, cooking, etc. With no way to get sea water to the reverse osmosis plant, we had no fresh water production, though there are several weeks of fresh water stored in heated tanks.

    On Friday the hurricane was gone and it was a base-wide effort to shovel mountains of snow blocking some outside exit doors, and to pull out some of the sea water pipes to bring them inside to thaw. I think everything is now just about back to normal....phew!

    Wind_speed_90kts.jpg (66875 bytes)
    In the time I've been here since 2010, I've never seen the wind speed meters hitting the maximum stops before.

    Hatherton_lab_wind_recorder.jpg (121499 bytes)
    In the Hatherton Lab, a paper chart records the wind direction and speed 24 hours a day for the past 40+ years.

    Chart_recorder_hurricane.jpg (144612 bytes)
    It's not often that the chart recorder runs out of range and starts drawing the wind speed in the direction chart on the left side of the paper.

    Vehicle_workshop_door_snow.jpg (173358 bytes)
    Door seals become rigid at cold temperatures and don't press firmly against sealing surfaces, leaving small gaps around the edges of doors which are penetrated by wind blown snow. Inside the vehicle workshop, there was enough snow accumulation for Lex to build a snow man. Though he'd be much more inclined to put it to a better use; such as keeping the beers cool for after work refreshments.

    Admin_front_door_snow.jpg (124630 bytes)
    It was a similar story inside the administration building main door. The seals on this door take a frequent hammering, as it's used by door slamming Americans to visit the shop. Presumably in America, it's common practice to use an angry herd of charging wild elephants to close any door, so they slam it with this much force every time, which makes you think the building is imminently flipping over. As such, the door seals get completely mashed, and there's no hope of sealing the door from snow penetration.

    Workshop_ASR_power_failure.jpg (119378 bytes)
    Around the peak of the hurricane at 3:38PM, we were plunged into darkness as the snow dust tripped the frequency converter indoor smoke alarm which switched off the AC power. Most important systems are battery backed up. In my workshop (photo above), the alarm receiver units indicated many remote equipment failures caused by the loss of AC power.

    Power_failure_alarms.jpg (86615 bytes)
    Likewise, the base-wide plant alarm system (which I designed and built here in 2013) indicates problems with most systems due to the complete loss of AC power.

    Dave_Rowe_con1.jpg (91720 bytes)
    The brief loss of power caused the sea water pumps to stop, requiring a short trip outside to the pump shed to re-start them. Dave Rowe, pictured above, was trying to help the guys get to the pump shed, however they couldn't even stand up outside due to the strong wind. Because the pumps couldn't be re-started until the day after, the sea water pipes froze over the six hours while water wasn't flowing.

    Radio_workshop_roof_leak.jpg (162045 bytes)
    Meanwhile in my workshop, I was dealing with other issues. Up in the roof space, there is a small gap in the building exterior. This caused blowing snow to enter the roof space, then melt, causing heavy indoor rain above the equipment racks. I had to set up covers, buckets and towels to try and protect the equipment. The LCD monitor on the radio station computer appears to have died as a result of the indoor monsoon, though everything else seems to have survived. I've raised this issue with a number of carpenters over the years in summer when it's actually possible to do outside building maintenance, and each time they say "I don't see it as an issue, there's no way any significant amount of snow can get in through a gap I can't even see!"

    Sea_water_intake_pipe_caterpillar.jpg (96158 bytes)
    Over the past couple of days it's been a base-wide effort to remove the frozen sea water intake pipes, bring them inside to thaw and then re-install them. The photo above is the team effort at 11AM yesterday of getting the pipes back into place on the water intake gantry. The sea pump shed is visible centre.

  • 5/7/2015: A big weekend for the Americans over the hill at McMurdo Station as expected with their 4th of July celebrations. A quiet night here at Scott Base was more appealing to me on Friday night than the big carnival, though a number of Scott Base residents entered the chili cook off. Tim came third with his smoked pork chili, but Tracy the chef failed to make it into the top three, the same luck she had as with the New Year chili cook off.

    A group of us attended the horse shoes tournament yesterday afternoon. Aside from my below average throwing ability, the free beer and burgers made it worthwhile.

    We're contemplating walking over the hill this morning to attend the mimosa (orange juice and wine) and burrito bar at the McMurdo pub, Gallagher's, but with an ambient temperature now of around -46C and a wind chill of -66C, it's starting to get a little nippy. Looks as though we'll stay at Scott Base today and introduce the British project electrician to the better side of daily Auckland life with a screening of Once Were Warriors.

    Frank_plastering.jpg (105264 bytes)
    Frank spent most of the day yesterday plastering in the Field Centre. He came in with two others at the beginning of June on a six week contract for plastering and painting the newly built walls as part of the Field Centre modifications. They've only got a week and a half left and there's a lot of work left to be done. I suspect the next week will consist of many hours overtime.

    HFC_Lab1_progress_4-7-15.jpg (98317 bytes)
    One of the new labs in the Field Centre, located where the beer storage area and base food chiller used to be. I thought feature walls were a pre-2010 fashion fad, obviously not. Although many people are likening these boldly coloured feature walls to something you might see in a pre-school. Someone commented the other day "at least the theme fits, you get treated like children half of the time here anyway!"

    HFC_Lab2_progress_4-7-15.jpg (81008 bytes)
    This is lab 2, nearing completion. This one has a bright green feature wall. The concrete floors will be covered with vinyl when the flooring specialists arrive in August.

    K131_ice_probe_installation.jpg (159412 bytes)
    Pip, Kate and Darryn installed the Otago University's K131 sea ice probe on Friday. This uses a string of temperature sensors drilled through the sea ice to measure the rate of ice growth. Data is recorded every ten minutes then transmitted back to Scott Base via Crater Hill with the new telemetry network I designed and implemented. All worked perfectly first time.

    Getting_into_the_truck.jpg (141866 bytes)
    Getting into the truck yesterday morning to go to the horse shoes tournament at the McMurdo Vehicle Maintenance Facility building. The vehicles are fairly standard Toyota Land Cruisers which have minor modifications for operating in the cold, including battery heaters and engine block heaters. These don't really do a lot, and unsurprisingly the vehicles start experiencing issues when the temperature gets very cold. The cut-off for vehicle use is anything below -40C, which isn't all that common aside from a few times in June/July.

    Horseshoes_4-7-15.jpg (144720 bytes)
    The horse shoes tournament yesterday as part of the Americans' 4th of July celebrations was the same setup as the previous session in April. The rules are fairly simple; two teams of two people take turns at throwing specially shaped horse shoe bits of metal at a post. If it's around the post you get three points, if it's within a horse shoe width away from the post, it counts as one point. The winning team is the first one to get to 15 points.

    Horseshoes_pit_4-7-15.jpg (164420 bytes)
    Many of the Americans take the game very seriously, there are often careful measurements to see what qualifies as 'around the post' to decide if the correct amount of points are awarded. I wasn't as fussed; so long as there was free beer and I was throwing heavy pieces of metal at something, it made for a pretty cheap afternoon's entertainment.

    Temperature_display_4-7-15.JPG (93959 bytes)
    One of the many outside temperature and wind displays at Scott Base last night, the ambient temperature dropped to a chillier than usual -47.5C, which it still is now. The temperature at Crater Hill, 300m above our sea level elevation is a pleasant -26.7C right now, so there's a deep inversion layer difference of 20.8 degrees Celsius.