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

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June 2013
  • 30/6/2013: Aside from the usual bustle of activity during the working week, I was fortunate enough to receive a personal invitation from NASA to watch the IRIS solar research satellite launch on Thursday. The NASA ground station at McMurdo was the first ground station to track the new satellite launched from California as it entered orbit, racing across the sky at over 20,000km/hr. It was a pleasure to watch such a calm and professionally executed launch which involved control centres all over the world each linked with live video and audio.

    On the social events calendar, the Americans at McMurdo Station are preparing for their Independence Day/4th of July celebrations this coming Friday. This features a range of carnival activities ranging from human Jenga to a dunk-tank to candy floss making. Money raised goes to a needy charity. My Scott Base band is performing a set of music for the event as well, which is chewing up most of my spare time at present with various practice sessions. The band now consists of myself and four Americans and has since adopted the name of "The Johnny 5 Five". We've even found a bass player from somewhere. I turned up for a rehearsal session at McMurdo last Thursday and there was a 67-year old guy by the name of Horace there with a bass guitar. No-one seems to know how he got to be there, but I'm not complaining, he's a needy addition.

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    Mid-winter on 21/22nd of June is also when the moon is the closest to the Earth, known as the 'Super Moon'. We were fortunate enough to have a break in the cloud to see this spectacular event. During the day there was so much light from the moon that even Mt Erebus in the distance was visible. Thanks to Molly for the photo.

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    As promised from last week, a photo of our mid-winter dinner celebrations which included our 15 Scott Base staff and about 25 American guests.

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    Someone requested more photos of me. I'm not sure why, I'm anything but photogenic. But here I am at the mid-winter dinner.

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    The last of our fresh fruit ran out during the week. The delicious NZ Royal Gala apples had been lasting surprisingly well. We'll have to wait until the mid-winter flights in August before we see any more fruit that isn't canned or frozen. Meanwhile our trusty hydroponics unit continues to produce fresh rocket and lettuce.

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    Here's Rex and Ray hard at work at the McMurdo NASA ground station during the launch of the IRIS research satellite from California on Thursday. Rex on the left is looking after telemetry control of the satellite while Ray monitors the antenna tracking systems.

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    They have a monitor that shows internet fed video from various sources throughout the mission. This is live video filmed from the F18 chase jet following the Orbital L-1011 carrier aircraft which carried the Pegasus launch vehicle (a type of mini-rocket) to 39,000 feet where the Pegasus vehicle was released and ignited. The photo above is the Pegasus just after ignition.

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    There are control centres over the world which are involved in the launch, most of them can see each other via internet video as seen in the photo above.

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    After the Pegasus launch vehicle is out of camera view of the F18 chase jet, a NASA produced animation shows the progress of the vehicle into orbit. When destination orbit is reached, the satellite at the tip of the vehicle is released. Its folded solar arrays are visible in the animation.

  • 23/6/2013: What a week, filled with both celebration and tragedy. On Monday morning I received the unfortunate news that my co-worker, Steve Locke, from Downer Engineering had passed away following a battle with aggressive brain cancer. The news did not come as a surprise as it was common knowledge that Steve's health had been deteriorating rapidly in recent weeks. He first noticed problems when working here at Scott Base with me for a couple of weeks last October. He was often drooling unexpectedly and during conversation he would occasionally reply with a nonsensical string of random words. He got it checked out after returning home to Christchurch and they found a series of brain tumours. While the following chemotherapy seemed to slow the cancer for a while, it soon became apparent that he was fighting a losing battle. Farewell Steve, he was a fantastic person who will be sadly missed by everyone.

    On a more positive note, Friday was the official mid-winter day which is celebrated as usual with a delicious dinner feast together with many guests from McMurdo Station. Our chef Damian had been working for weeks on the elaborate 10-course meal which featured everything from home-made hams to home-made chocolates. My particular favourite was the pork belly which had been marinated in duck fat. Simply delicious! As Molly our electrician frequently reminds me "A moment on the lips is a lifetime on the hips". Of course he's right, I was about 90kg when I weighed myself the other day and I'm usually around 82-85kg. I'm rapidly turning into some kind of chunky Oompa-Loompa with all of this delicious food.

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    All of the stations in Antarctica send each other mid-winter greeting notices at this time of the year. Here's the photo that was used in our greeting.

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    Here's a photo of Steve Locke during his final trip to Scott Base in October 2012 which truly reflects Steve's awesome character and fun personality. Thanks to Iain Miller, the ex-Antarctica NZ manager of Scott Base for sending this photo and the one below earlier this week in memory of Steve.

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    One of Steve's many favourite activities was 'snow graffiti' though few people actually knew it was him. Much to the annoyance of the environmental people, "someone" (Steve) would use a squirt-bottle of blackcurrant juice to decorate large mounds of snow. He'd be eyeing up specific patches of snow that you could easily see from inside when passing certain windows, then carefully select a moment when no-one was watching to go paint on his "blank canvas". These were usually amusing pictures of faces with huge cheesy grins. The photo above, taken by Iain Miller, the ex-Antarctica NZ manager of Scott Base prior to his departure in October 2012, reads: "97FM Rules O.K Luv Iain Millar". It was well known that one of Steve's greatest passions was our radio station, Scott Base 97FM. During Iain's final days at Scott Base, this message appeared "from him", though a few people noticed the accidental spelling error of 'Millar' when it should have read 'Miller'.

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    Mike, our field support guy, has been profiling the sea ice out the front of Scott Base, this photo taken by Mike on Thursday at 11:30AM. The profiling involves drilling holes though the ice using a long thin drill to see how it's developing and if it's safe for vehicle travel. It's around 90cm thick at present and a Hagglund or Skidoo needs a minimum of 75cm of ice thickness for safe travel.

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    Meanwhile, another project I'm just completing now is a unit to perform an automatic announcement of a fire alarm condition at Scott Base over specific radio channels during summer. This used to be done by the NZ Defence Force supplied communications operators, though in the heat of an emergency situation the operator could accidentally forget to do specific actions, which left the people in the field without any communications. So now when the fire alarm activates, this unit will make a voice announcement over multiple radio channels, plus links radio channels together to relay speech between them. It's mostly made from recycled bits and pieces I found around Scott Base. The 19" rack case used to be an old cooling fan tray, you'll see I had to stick pieces of tape to the top corners as the sharp metalwork kept shredding my arms. The Zetron SentriVoice unit (left side) was left over from a much earlier attempt to announce power failures several years ago. I designed the module on the right hand side which performs a series of timing, control and sequencing events.

  • 16/6/2013: Another one of those long dark weeks where all of the days tend to blur into one big 54-hour working day. The constant darkness is gradually starting to affect some people as some seem to be tired all of the time while others seem to be more irritable than usual. It's always the silly little things that result in people getting all worked up. Individuals not cleaning up after themselves in the dining room is commonly one of the biggest sources of frustrations. Though in saying that, there appears to be relatively low levels of tension between everyone, we are all getting along nicely which isn't always easy to achieve with the same group of people living and working together for so long. The 5-month summer season is by far the most stressful as there frequent personality clashes between the 30+ summer staff.

    Can't remember the details of the week as it was all fairly mundane, but the real highlight of my week was when our chef made the fabulous Bacon Explosion. Refer to the mouth-watering photos below.

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    Yesterday we organised another group photo for reasons unknown. I'm at the far left in the back row if anyone is interested. This may be to add to the ever growing pool of "possible winter over photos" to hang on the wall of the main corridor. One of many Scott Base traditions since the base opened in 1957 has been the group photo mounted on the wall from each winter. But like many things where differences of opinions clash, not everyone is able to agree on one photo. There's always comments such as "Oh no, we can't use that one as Dave is glaring down on us like an evil overlord" or "The faces are slightly too shaded". Personally I hate doing group photos and the more poorly planned and badly executed attempts of these I have to endure, the more annoyed I become. Couldn't care less about the winter photo myself, just put a collection of roughly scribbled stick figures on the wall and that would be more than adequate. Last time I checked my employment contract, it said something about radio communications work as opposed to being involved in as many lame photo shoots as Justin Bieber.

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    Now I recall what I was doing this week apart from being forced into annoying group photos. I'm currently working on a series of system enhancements to overcome some of the human errors of the Communications Operators over summer. When the fire alarm sounds at Scott Base in summer, the operator is supposed to carry out a predefined series of tasks, including a broadcast over working radio channels that there is a fire alarm condition. But in the heat of the moment, some of the NZ Defence Force supplied comms operators tend to forget certain actions, which can leave the many people in the field without any communications. So some of this week's work has been to automate this so that when a fire alarm occurs, an automatic voice announcement will be made over all working radio channels, thus eliminating the frequent human error. The photo above is the Zetron 4010 communications console in the Communications Operators' office which provides simultaneous access to all of our working VHF and HF radio channels.

    Bacon_explosion_1.JPG (136814 bytes)
    Let me introduce the fabulous Bacon Explosion. This is a recipe we discovered in the 2011 season and had been trying to convince our chef at the time to make for us, though unfortunately he was never able to for various reasons. This week our chef Damian produced two of these bacon-themed meatloaves. Start by weaving a lattice mat of streaky bacon.

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    Coat the back lattice with American BBQ seasoning, add a layer of pork mince with a sprinkling of freshly grilled bacon pieces then drizzle with spicy home-made BBQ sauce.

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    Roll up the inner layer while leaving the lattice outer layer flat.

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    Roll the woven bacon around the inner layer. The official recipe is to slow-smoke the entire thing, though we have no provision to do this here. Damian improvised by wrapping it in aluminium foil and slow baking over a tray of water.

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    The final result! Every bit as delicious as it looks. While it may not carry the Heart Foundation tick of approval (pending a generous donation/bribe), I figure it's tasty enough to turn the most hardened vegan to the meaty side.

  • 9/6/2013: It's been a chilly start to June with near record low monthly temperatures over the past few days. Yesterday's maximum ambient temperature was -40 degrees C with a low of -45C. On the plus side, it doesn't take long for the warm beer to cool down when you stick it out the door. Any more than 15 minutes and you're drinking chunks of ice.

    The past week also held a few milestones for the Antarctic Heritage Trust who are ahead of their conservation schedule at 1000 artefacts completed this winter. Jamie the AHT carpenter has at long last completed the mammoth task of solid pine wood box conservation (he's now onto less enjoyable plywood box conservation). And on the 6th of June it was the Captain's (Robert Falcon Scott) 145th birthday. He's dead just now however; in 1912 he died during a failed journey to the South Pole. It's Scott's artefacts that AHT have their conservation focus set on at present.

    Anyway, there's this kind of tradition at Scott Base where the chef makes a cake for whoever on station has a birthday. Often they don't like doing it because ultimately it's just more work to do. Earlier in the week I was joking with our chef, Damian that he'd have to make a big elaborate cake for Captain Scott. Then on the Captain's birthday, one of the conservators actually asked him to do just that. Given the fact that it was only a few hours' notice, Damian was convinced I was playing a prank on him (which I wasn't) and thought I'd asked the conservators to ask him to make a big elaborate cake for the Captain. But they were quite serious, so he eventually made a Tiramisu cake in the shape of Scott's hut at Cape Evans in record time.

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    First up, here are a couple of photos from Molly who has a nice camera, plus way more time and patience than I do. This road sign is just outside Scott Base, an Aurora visible in the clear day time sky in the background.

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    The new Hagglund tracked vehicle parked outside. Everything is always either covered in snow or about to be covered in snow following the next storm.

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    Here's our water engineer, Graeme, in the secondary power house who is trying to convince me that he's tightening his Frankenstein neck bolts or something crazy. A big hello to Graeme's wife, Lorraine; currently on a trip to Aussie. I should pass on that when you were trying to phone Graeme on Thursday night, he was over at McMurdo somewhere and he said to say that he was a bit later than expected getting back.

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    Meanwhile in the power house, we were giving Dave a hand to remove the damaged heat dump coil. I've lost count, but nearly every year for the last few years, one of these copper coils has accidentally become frozen which causes a lot of damage, see below. No-one seems to be able to figure out why this keeps happening. The coil vents excess heat into the outside air when the generators are running and no more heat can be dissipated inside Scott Base. A big fan blows outside air at -40C through the copper coil, so if the hot water inside the coil isn't flowing correctly, it freezes very quickly.

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    As mentioned above, this is what happens to copper tubes when the water inside freezes. These 12mm diameter tubes have expanded with pressure from the ice inside, causing multiple tubes to split and then gush water out when the ice melts.

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    Dave made a speedy job of braising all of the damaged pipes. The coil went back into service yesterday and shows no signs of leaking, fingers crossed.

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    The broadcast FM radio transmitter had drifted off frequency which requires some attention. Looks like more than a 5-minute job as there appears to be something funky going on with the crude home-made frequency synthesizer circuit. It was designed and built at Scott Base in 1994 and has been operating 24 hours a day ever since, so I guess it hasn't done too badly. Someone has even gone to the trouble of producing some reasonable technical documentation for it.

  • 1/6/2013: The start of another month and the official start of winter in NZ. We're about three weeks away from the annual mid-winter celebration which usually consists of some kind of fancy dinner.

    Speaking of parties, the Queen-themed party on Saturday night in light of the Queen's Birthday celebration went fairly well despite a slightly lower turnout than expected from McMurdo. There had been an unfortunate series of events which began during the weekly "American Night" where a few visitors began getting a little ruder and louder than usual. Our station manager complained to the McMurdo Station Manager who sent a station-wide memo to remind people of 'acceptable behaviour'. This had the side-effect of discouraging some of the Americans from attending the open-invitation party we'd organised for everyone.

    Though the event panned out well otherwise, everyone remained surprisingly in control all night despite the large supply of 'free' beer that most of us Scott Base residents had individually purchased to share with our American visitors.

    The live music we performed was also a success, despite the fact that we'd picked up a new band member a day before hand and had minimal practice. And some of my band members had never performed on stage before, so needed a bit of encouragement from me to kick things off.

    Meanwhile, I should have the bulk of my documentation work complete in a week or two. Just as well; although I quite enjoy documentation, my levels of motivation are beginning to seriously dwindle due to doing so much of it recently. The days of 24-hour darkness probably don't help matters much.

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    Temperatures generally vary between -20C and -30C and it's always dark. So doing any work outside always involves lots of dressing up in outside clothing. Here's me working in one of the American communications buildings.

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    And here's me re-routing copper signalling and telephone pairs in an outside junction box. At least someone was thoughtful enough to label all of the 200+ terminations so you can see what's going where. Oh yes, that would have been me two years ago after getting angry that nothing was labelled.

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    Molly recording some routine inspection results at the power store, which is a flywheel based energy storage system which can quickly absorb or supply short bursts of electrical energy from/to the Ross Island power grid.

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    The AHT girls have been surprisingly active with promoting my campaign as the McMurdo Area Manager. There are dozens of these sorts of promotional posters all over McMurdo Station, plus promotional badges and other propaganda. I have no idea what this job is, or if it's even a real job or not, but the Americans are all very worked up about it. Apparently I have such a large following that they named a new bacon burger at their burger bar after me: the Johnny 5 Burger. These AHT girls should instead be working in a marketing position; I'm convinced they'd be able to sell snow to McMurdo Station.

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    Saturday saw the vehicle workshop decked out with many decorations plus lighting and sound equipment borrowed from McMurdo. There was an interesting range of Queen themed party costumes, I saw dairy queens, a queen bee, a queen 'B', a chess queen plus too many drag queens to speak of.

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    Here's a shot of our group during a pre-party sound check. Featuring myself (front left on lead guitar and vocals) and Tim the Hobbit (drums) from Scott Base. Plus Jason (backing guitar) and Harry (harmonica) from McMurdo.