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

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June 2015
  • 28/6/2015: If you're after exciting work stories, you've come to the wrong place. I've spent the vast majority of the week terminating hundreds of copper cable pairs for the Field Centre rebuild. A new 100-pair telephone cable will carry new telephone extensions, public address speaker circuits and other services. All of this involves much background work which nobody ever sees or cares about. Including lots of labelling, cable records documentation and more.

    The next event on the calendar is the Americans' 4th of July celebrations next weekend. This is a massive event for them and they have three days of different social activities planned, including a chili cook-off, carnival, probably a dance party at some point, horse shoe tournament, burrito bar and more. Everyone from Scott Base has an open invite, so it's fun to have so many interesting things to see and do for a change. They had some live music planned as well, but the main guy in their band ended up with a major thumb injury this week, so they had to come up with some last minute change in musicians. I'm not doing much music at all this winter, which is a change to previous years. There just doesn't seem to be many willing musicians about this year, either at Scott Base or McMurdo Station.

    Field_centre_cable_cabinet_termination.jpg (137509 bytes)
    One of the many cable termination jobs this week was in the new cable termination cabinet in the Field Centre. Fortunately the project electrician, Geoff, is handling all of the CAT6 data cabling (the blue stuff), of which he's making an excellent job, I've been working on AT&T 110 distribution frame (right) which carries telephone and public address circuits.

    Stage3B_ethernet_switch.jpg (125671 bytes)
    Meanwhile, the Antarctica NZ IT department have been struggling since October last year to mount some of their new Ethernet switches. If you've ordered a switch that happens to be deeper than the wall cabinet so it doesn't physically fit; no problem! Unbolting the cabinet door and using a couple of cable ties to permanently secure the switch into the rack is obviously a tidy and professional solution. Plus the money saved by not wasting time on routing patch cables tidily can then be spent on a small piece of blue tape to make a nice hand written equipment label.

    Kate-Daz-Pip_ice_crack_drilling.jpg (119244 bytes)
    Kate, Darryn and Pip were out in the Hagglund this week to find a pathway over the sea ice to install a piece of science equipment that measures the rate of sea ice growth. It's a more complex affair than picking a random line and driving as the sea ice is thin in places and certain locations have large stress cracks that form in the same place each year. Because the ice becomes thin near the cracks, they drill through the ice to check the thickness to see if it's safe to drive on with the vehicle.

    Molly_signpost_aurora.jpg (101038 bytes)
    Many solar flares from the sun this week caused the electromagnetic emissions from the sun to react with the particles in the Earth's upper atmosphere, causing many bright auroras which were visible on cloudless days. I tend to spend all of my time working as opposed to taking aurora photos, but Molly captured this colourful scene on the road intersection just north of Scott Base.

  • 21/6/2015: Reaching the June solstice, also known as the middle of winter, is something of a milestone. Technically we're a few hours away from this yet; the official point in time is Monday the 22nd of June at 4:39AM.

    The annual Scott Base mid-winter dinner on Friday went well, with the usual array of fancy food, a few speeches and around 20 guests from McMurdo Station. I only spent until 10PM cleaning up, so it wasn't quite as bad as previous years. Despite the clean-up not lasting quite all night, I was still too exhausted to continue with the after-party and had an early night. I'm obviously becoming old and boring.

    McMurdo Station had their mid-winter dinner party last night, though I was on fire crew as usual, so a group of us stayed home at Scott Base and spent the evening watching a poor quality bootlegged movie filmed by someone holding a video camera in a Chinese cinema. The people from Scott Base who did attend the McMurdo function said there was a great selection of food, as expected.

    Also as tradition goes, each of the wintering Antarctic stations sends mid-winter greetings to each other. A copy of ours, complete with Friday's menu, can be seen here.

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    A view of the Scott Base mid-winter dinner in the dining room on Friday night.

    McMurdo_invitation_envelope.jpg (71097 bytes)
    On Thursday, each of us received a personalised letter from The Captain, dated 1935. Whatever could it contain?! In actual fact, the letter wasn't actually from The Captain; the fact that I was born 43 years after 1935 was the first subtle hint.

    McMurdo_invitation_letter.jpg (198296 bytes)
    The letter turned out to be a coffee stained invitation to the McMurdo mid-winter dinner. Certainly a nice gesture, but as usual, I was stuck on fire crew that night. The story of my life.

    Molly-H1_aurora.jpg (111369 bytes)
    Meanwhile, Molly had been out and about with his camera, taking a few aurora shots. This one is of the hitching rail at Scott Base where the Hagglunds vehicles are parked up. No, I'm not sure what's up with that rusty steel drum in the foreground, it's probably full of rocks and was once used to hold a sign at some point.

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    Another of Molly's aurora shots, this one includes the Scott Base vehicle workshop with the attached linkway for foot traffic to/from the Hillary Field Centre, out of view to the left.

    June_group_photo.jpg (114206 bytes)
    And another group photo. There's actually a method to the madness behind these increasingly annoying group shots. This winter is the first to have an ever-changing group of individuals. With flights scheduled every six weeks, it allows for a partial change in crew. In our case, we've got contractors coming and going as part of the Field Centre renovation project. So the idea is that the traditional winter-over photo will be a montage of different group photos from throughout the season as the group changes.

  • 15/6/2015: We're in the countdown to both a significant milestone and event - the winter solstice, also known as the shortest day; where there is the least number of daylight hours per day. Except that we have no daylight at all. But this mid-winter point means that the average temperature will slowly begin to rise we'll have sunlight again in only two months. The winter solstice is this Saturday; the Americans at McMurdo Station mark the event with an evening of fancy dining and parties. We'll be something much the same here at Scott Base this Friday, though on a smaller scale.

    We have an open invite to the McMurdo mid-winter dinner, which is good, except for the fact that I'm on fire crew this week. As usual. So I'll probably end up staying here and seeing a few music videos while downing a few beers.

    There's also a selective invite for some of the Americans to come here to enjoy the Scott Base mid-winter dinner. We were each allowed to invite one person - except for some people who got told who they were 'inviting'. Hmmm, I thought the entire point of World War 2 was to combat fascism? Obviously not.... Anyway, the point is that there is only space for 20 American guests, though practically everyone at McMurdo desperately wants to attend the Scott Base mid-winter dinner. It's particularly awkward because all these Americans keep hitting you up with comments such as, "You remember how we lent you that stuff? Yeah, so where's our invite to the Scott Base dinner?!" As much as it would be nice to have 140 or so Americans all crammed into our tiny shoe box sized dining room, it's really not practical to host them all. So awkward moments with the Americans are a sure thing at this time of the year.

    I often wonder, and have suggested, that it would be nicer to have a traditional NZ barbeque in the vehicle workshop or something with plenty of beers, with the point being that it's low key and loads of people can attend. For reasons unknown, the mid-winter tradition calls for an extremely elaborate multi-course dinner that the chef spends literally weeks stressing and preparing everything for. Then on the actual night, the dinner lasts about 40 minutes, and then you spend the rest of the night and next day washing dishes. It's all very stressful and very intense. I'm serious about the barbeque; it takes little preparation, there's little waste as you just cook stuff on demand and the clean up afterwards is fairly quick and painless.

    So that'll be the highlight of this week I'd say; the mid-winter all-night dishwashing extravaganza. I can barely contain my excitement.

    HFC_wall_assembly.jpg (124508 bytes)
    The new walls in the Field Centre internal rebuild project are now almost complete. The three plaster and paint tradespeople who have been here a week and a half are well into it. They only have until early June to finish a lot of work, hence they've been doing extra hours to try and complete it in time.

    Temporary_gymnasium.jpg (126666 bytes)
    What used to be the gymnasium area in the Field Centre is now turned into a kitchen/meeting room area, still in the process of being painted. The gym equipment has been moved to a number of different locations over the last few months so people can still use it. This is the latest version of the temporary gym before the equipment makes it into the final location in a room downstairs in the field centre.

    Geoff_HFC_server_room.jpg (99270 bytes)
    This is Geoff, the project electrician for the Field Centre rebuild project. The new cabinets for the computer servers and cable termination were installed this week into the new computer server room.

    Brunch_crew_McMurdo_galley.jpg (123839 bytes)
    Some photos from the McMurdo Station Galley last Sunday. Some of the people at my brunch table included Rex (centre) from the NASA Ground Station, Bill (right of Rex) who is the McMurdo Station Manager and Laura (far right) from McMurdo Human Resources.

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    As promised from last week, here are a few shots of the McMurdo Craft Fair held last Sunday in the galley. There was a smaller than expected range of things on display, but some of them included a range of portrait and watercolour paintings.

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    And as expected, Alan the McMurdo Fire Chief had a range of his splendid leather craftwork available for purchase.

    Repair_TNZI_computers.jpg (182864 bytes)
    Some of my work from the week included repair of the Telecom NZ International server computers. They started crashing constantly and became unusable so it didn't take long to trace the issue to leaking capacitors on the main board. It then involved waiting several months for the new capacitors to arrive on one of the cargo flights.

    K131_sea_ice_telemetry_testing.jpg (81883 bytes)
    Over the last few days I've been working on a new telemetry project for the Otago University's sea ice probe. The probe measures the rate of growth of sea ice using a string of thermistors that dangle 2m from the ice surface into the ocean below. A data logger measures the temperature at different depths every ten minutes and records it to a memory card. This experiment has been running for a number of years now and the trouble was that someone had to spend a day driving to and from the probe every few weeks to download the memory card data. When they messed up this process, several weeks or months of data would be lost. I suggested there was an better way of doing this, so provided the concept of using radio telemetry, which they sent down the parts for in this last cargo flight. I've just finished setting up the 900MHz spread spectrum base station radio for Crater Hill which includes a band-pass filter and RS232/RS422 converter for sending serial data over the cable network back to Scott Base. Due to be installed next week with a bit of luck if we get a break in the weather to walk up Crater Hill.

  • 7/6/2015: The week's highlight is certainly that the single C17 flight arrived; unlike the April flight being run by the NZ Defence Force. And it didn't only just arrive, it was exactly to schedule. Say what you like about the US Air Force, but they certainly deliver.

    So on this flight the two building apprentices, Blake and Peter, left at the end of their contract and were replaced with three new people; plastering and painting specialists from Wanaka.

    Of course we received a bunch of urgent freight and some truly superb fresh fruit and vegetables. Though it seems that most of the cargo flight was filled with personal items; the Americans were jokingly saying they should re-brand the military flight - which is supposedly where a majority of the personal cargo was originating from. Was much the same at our end, which included many bottles of fancy whisky and even a bicycle! Obviously the global Email from Christchurch management saying that "this flight is for extremely urgent cargo only!" actually meant the opposite of that. Damn, if I'd known that, I would probably have arranged some beer deliveries or something.

    The other good news is that it's a 2-day weekend, which couldn't have come at a better time. In the typical trend of Scott Base winters, everyone is nearly burnt out after working long 6-day weeks.

    Right, I'm off to the McMurdo Station craft fair this morning. Not sure what'll be there, but many of the Americans have a lot of lesser known talent in art and crafts. I'll get a few photos to share with you next week.

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    All the photos this week are from Becky, who actually enjoys photography, unlike me. This shot is out at the Pegasus Airfield on Wednesday shortly after the C17 landed just after 5PM.

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    One of many American cargo trucks transporting cargo to and from the Pegasus Airfield on Wednesday.

    Becky_aurora1.jpg (86610 bytes)
    We've had a few mostly pathetic auroras lately; Becky has used long exposure photography techniques to make them appear much more vivid than they actually are in real life. Perhaps these photos would be better titled "here's nothing what auroras actually look like in reality".

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    Another aurora photo from Becky, the sea ice pressure ridges in front of Scott Base is illuminated by the electric lighting from Scott Base.

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    Here's what it looks like driving down one of the roads in the middle of McMurdo Station in the middle of a typical windy day.