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. It began with completing the remaining month of the summer season, which then evolved to staying on for winter 2016. This will be my fourth season 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)
July 2016
  • 31/7/2016: The ambient light at mid-day is becoming significantly less subtle with each passing day, a pleasant reminder that sunrise on the 19th of August is less than three weeks away.

    The many people on station who are experiencing an Antarctic winter for the first time are handing the season in a variety of ways. For most, about now is the deepest 'low-point' in the year due to the temperature being always below -30C, the isolation, the monotony of work, and the fact it's been over three months since we've seen any hint of sunlight until now. As a result, it's common for individuals to become short tempered, moody, forgetful, argumentative and depressed. Being my fourth winter, none of this comes as a surprise any more, though each season still springs something different. We have three women on station who seem to be coping much worse than the guys at the moment. I've seen more tense situations and awkward moments in the past few weeks than I'd say was normal. Not sure what it is, but some of these chicks seem to be on the brink of nuclear meltdown at times.

    Whatever it is, I hope the return of the sunlight in a few weeks helps to pacify the frequent tension in the air.

    Recycling_station.jpg (100990 bytes)
    The Christchurch office designed and posted some bright new signs to help clear up confusion at the many waste sorting and recycling stations around Scott Base. Despite the fact most of us go to extreme lengths to reduce and sort waste as much as possible, it's somewhat demoralising to know that much of the carefully sorted waste streams all just go together into landfill back in NZ at the end of the day.

    Fire_pump.jpg (110009 bytes)
    One of the two diesel engine driven fire pumps on hot standby and ready to run at a moment's notice. Installed eight years ago, they've only ever been run as part of weekly maintenance checks and in fire drills.

    SteveP_Sunday_jobs.jpg (116299 bytes)
    Steve spending Sunday catching up on a personal job in the light engineering workshop.

    SB_powerhouse_31-7-16.jpg (92486 bytes)
    I went for a stroll outside before, though the camera batteries were having a hard time at -40C. Despite the limited battery life, I captured a few shots to make the most of the mid-day ambient light. The photo above shows the Scott Base main power house and administration building.

    3A_Q-Hut_31-7-16.jpg (86295 bytes)
    Someone's made a smooth job of clearing the snow from behind the staff accommodation block. My bedroom is at one of the left windows.

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    The Field Centre with Mt Terror in the background.

  • 24/7/2016: Aside from the usual chores of helping people in Christchurch to try and plan and prepare for things this coming summer, it's been yet another week of paging controller software development work. While software development can be an interesting job in itself, sadly it's not a very interesting subject to talk about. Because it's one of those unknown black magic things that few people either understand or care about, people generally have as much regard for it as I do for penguins, seals and other Antarctic junk. So I'll save you the boredom of reading about it. Which leaves me with not much to write about. It is mid-winter, everyone is irritable and moody as is the norm for this time of the year.

    To help brighten the mood for one of our colleagues who had $700 premium tickets to see The Cure play live in Auckland on Thursday, but found out three days after he'd bought them that he was coming here instead, I made a feature of The Cure music for Thursday's radio show which was particularly well received.

    Paging_transmitter_done.jpg (162175 bytes)
    The paging transmitter hardware that I completed a few weeks ago. It's not changed form at all in the past couple of weeks because I've been writing the software that drives it all. And it's hard to take an interesting photo of software development. Email me if you have a fetish for screen grabs of C source code and I'll make your day.

    Snow_clearing_deck.jpg (138833 bytes)
    Another one of those jobs that's never finished is shovelling snow from fire exits. A day after you think you're done, there's another snowfall and it looks as though you've not shovelled anything. How particularly unrewarding.

    Arrival_Heights_aurora.jpg (109844 bytes)
    Some people are still even finding the occasional thrill of getting that perfect aurora photo. This isn't one of them. The perfect aurora photo would be of someone getting something productive done instead. Snow shovelling anyone?

  • 17/7/2016: The scheduled July flight on Friday arrived after several days weather delay, bringing us one new person and increasing the number on station to 12 people. The new arrival, Steve, was with us winter last year for some project engineering work and he's back for more of the same thing for five weeks. He's most insistent on this short stay. Many of us think there's a lot more than five weeks of work for him, and for some reason things take significantly longer than you'd expect here. We think he'll end up staying until the start of main body in October, while Steve says there's no way his wife will allow that. I guess time will tell.

    As expected, the flight bought a spirit-lifting supply of fresh fruit and vegetables and yet more parts for waiting jobs.

    4th_July_Parade.jpg (157786 bytes)
    Here's a belated photo of the Americans' mid-day 4th of July parade held a couple of weeks ago. What more can you say, you've got to admire their dedicated patriotism.

    Fondue_evening.jpg (152274 bytes)
    We recently had a cheese fondue evening. For many of us, it was a fondue first. I didn't know what to expect, but in short you dip lumps of bread into a cheese sauce then eat it. I was unsure at first, the sauce smelled like sweaty socks and didn't taste that much better. Apparently it's one of those flavours that grows on you, though my final conclusion was that it's not to my taste.

    Cable_inspection_14-7-16.jpg (85321 bytes)
    I performed a mid-winter inspection of the three phase power cable and fibre optic cable that runs nearly 5km from Scott Base to the Satellite Earth Station. Certain areas are known for snow accumulation which buries the cable, then the downhill snow movement pulls the cable and can cause significant damage. The work completed this summer to elevate the cable clear of these deep snow drifts appears to be working well; while the cable is under a small amount of snow in places, there's no problems with sideways pressure trying to pull the cable in half.

    Robbo-Skua_Central.jpg (141493 bytes)
    Robbo called into the McMurdo Station Skua Central, he's found himself a half-used tub of protein powder. This small building is essentially a community recycling centre. People who are leaving can donate reusable clothing, board games, books, snacks and other supplies to Skua Central and anyone can come and help themselves to anything. Almost everyone on Ross Island at some point ends up with some items of clothing from here. While it's rarely fashionable, at least it's free and certainly better than nothing.

  • 10/7/2016: As usual for this time of the year, I've got few in the way of interesting photos to display. Not only the -30C temperatures and constant darkness not make for any decent outdoor photography, there's just the regular routine of work happening inside which rarely presents a great deal of interest.

    Fortunately we're having an easier time than the Americans are with another round of issues with their remote satellite earth station at Black Island. A number of recently developed faults have required a day's traverse by a maintenance team to repair the facility which is unmanned in winter. Fortunately their 40-something kilometre trip by Pisten Bully appeared to go without too many of the usual hassles and they arrived on site last night to begin several days of work. Fingers crossed the good weather holds out for them. The McMurdo weather forecaster, John, loves to liven up his weather reports with a bit of rap music.

    Paging_SW_development.jpg (118578 bytes)
    A major portion of my week has involved the development of the control software to operate the recently developed store and forward paging repeater hardware. It's around half way complete; the photo above of the setup I'm using for software development.

    Sea_ice_probe.jpg (92417 bytes)
    The Otago University's annual sea ice monitoring probe has also been installed to monitor the growth rate of the sea ice. I designed the radio telemetry system for it last year, which provides near real time ice growth data to their website in New Zealand.

    Cup_ransom.jpg (205330 bytes)
    An age long 'tradition' between Scott Base and McMurdo Station is the acquisition of the other station's property in jest. The latest event was an Email we received this week with a ransom photo from a fake address that read:
                    From: dan carter []
                    Sent: Monday, 4 July 2016 8:12 a.m.
                    Subject: Ross Island Cup
                    You may recognize the trophy. It's ours now.
                    We have *your* trophy. You have *our* soldiers.
                    Give us 4 Green Berets and we'll give you your trophy back. Even swap.
                    THE AMERICANS.
    Obviously they want four of the Macs Green Beret beers we have in limited supply in exchange for the trophy, which was once used for the annual mid-summer rugby competition. But the rugby is no-more because management figured it wasn't safe, making the trophy somewhat redundant. As far as we're concerned, they've done us a favour by getting rid of our trash. And those Green Berets sure do taste good!

  • 3/7/2016: Just as all of the mid-winter celebrations have come to an end, the Americans at McMurdo Station are in the process of celebrating their 4th of July celebrations, which is a big event for these guys. Friday night consisted of a rare treat of a charcoal barbeque followed by a chili cook-off, a talent show and various carnival type attractions and activities.

    You might be thinking that it sounds like all play and no work much of the time. On the contrary I've been busy with various work projects, including a paging transmitter to resolve the 20 year old issue of the lack of indoor radio paging coverage due to the radio signal shielding effect of the Scott Base buildings.

    Paging_transmitter_build.jpg (158392 bytes)
    Radio paging transmitter work in progress with my own design of optical input isolation and RS232 to RS422 data interface for sending data long distance over copper cable.

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    One of the 4th of July carnival events at the McMurdo social event on Friday (the 1st of July). A lot of creative and interesting ideas, people make these things in their spare time outside of work, mostly using recycled materials.

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    Gracie operating the Freedom Cuts booth. The sign stated "Mullets and Mohawks only". Many people were in desperate need of a haircut anyway and this was convenient and free. Unsurprisingly, many people on station are now sporting a very punky Mohawk or very redneck Mullet. Or a combination of both.

    4th_July_Jenga.jpg (160081 bytes)
    The Human Jenga event is always popular with those who like climbing and have excellent balance. The photo says it all; someone throws boxes up to you which you stack under your feet to get as high as possible before you inevitably loose balance and take a dive.