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.
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.
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.
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!"
Lab 3 in the newly refurbished Field Centre is nearing
completion. Now awaiting the arrival of the floor laying
contractors in August.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Until all the power dies and the entire place is plunged into
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!
In the time I've been here since 2010, I've never seen the wind speed
meters hitting the maximum stops before.
In the Hatherton Lab, a paper chart records the wind direction and
speed 24 hours a day for the past 40+ years.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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!"
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.
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 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
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.
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
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.