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

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June 2016
  • 26/6/2016: The mid-winter solstice has been and gone this week, meaning it's technically getting warmer and brighter. Very slowly. McMurdo Station held their annual mid-winter celebration dinner last night. Those of us on Scott Base fire crew, which included myself as usual, ventured over for the drinks and nibbles hour, then we returned to Scott Base so that the remainder of the staff could attend the main dinner event followed by a dance party.

    The project work at Scott Base is keeping things interesting, I've finally got a lot of work in the pipeline which should easily last me the rest of the season. And today is beer brewing day. We ordered an all grain beer kit from NZ in March, which finally arrived here in the June cargo flight and brewed today. After five days of fermentation it'll be ready to bottle then drinkable in a month or so.

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    The McMurdo Station galley was decorated with a prehistoric theme for last night's mid-winter dinner. This included dinosaur skeleton models made from recycled cardboard. To the left is Rex Cotten who is one of my friends working at the NASA ground station; myself and Grubb the carpenter on the right.

    New_RO2_pump.jpg (158143 bytes)
    Andy fitted a new high pressure pump to the water making plant this week. The reverse osmosis water plant is at least 20 years old; while they keep talking about replacing it with a newer, more efficient plant, it's one of those jobs that's always getting moved forward a year due to various reasons. They've been "definitely going to replace it this year" for at least as long as I can remember. Meanwhile, various components get replaced, remanufactured or upgraded to extend the life of our fresh water production facility.

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    The original high pressure gear pump from the water making plant, replaced with the new pump pictured above. The water engineer last year looked at this old pump after it developed a problem and said "there is absolutely no way it will ever work again"; after which Graeme Hooper needed some pure water for making some beer over a year ago, so he spent an hour or two rebuilding it and it's been working fine ever since.

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    This was the first time Grubb the carpenter had brewed an all-grain beer, so naturally he was very excited to be brewing this bold imperial stout. I'm on the left, preparing the yeast starter.

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    Pouring the boiled malt/hops into a pot for rapid cooling.

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    Rapid cooling the boiled liquid by pumping snow water through a copper coil. Once it reaches around 20 degrees C, it's into the fermenter and the yeast is added.

  • 19/6/2016: Certainly this week's highlight was the mid-winter celebrations we held last night. This annual event marks the centre point in winter, the statistically coldest part of the season and around 16 weeks until we return home to New Zealand. The celebrations include a fancy dinner with all 11 Scott Base staff and around 35 invited guests from McMurdo Station. I suspect it's great times for everyone except the chef, who spends the entire week on preparations and spent all day yesterday cooking. See the Scott Base mid-winter greetings/menu sent out to other wintering Antarctic Stations here. It's one of those somewhat cringe worthy traditions that most other wintering stations send out invitations to each other, though it's physically impossible to go visiting at this time of year. Some of the stations are over 6000km apart and there's practically no long distance travel done due to the extremes in weather, temperature and of course constant darkness.

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    Grubb and Robbo made a number of different ice sculptures as centre pieces for the dining room. Grubb's sculpture (left) was a profile of Mt Erebus and Mt Terror that featured drink can cooler holes. I set up a glowing red LED inside to illuminate the top crater of the active volcano. Perhaps Robbo's sculpture was supposed to be a penguin, but the final piece had a striking resemblance to the gorilla from the video game, Donkey Kong.

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    The Scott Base dining room set up with nice tablecloths and silverware. Made a nice change from the usual plates and forks that are food-encrusted because some people are incapable of cleaning them properly.

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    Jason sculpted this large punch bowl from ice. Unfortunately the warmer liquid poured inside caused the ice to crack, making it more functional as a lawn sprinkler than a bowl.

    Keith_and_Shane.jpg (105031 bytes)
    Keith (left) the Scott Base chef, helped out by Shane, the head chef from McMurdo Station. I wondered if Keith had a rat under his hat controlling his cooking movements by pulling on his hair, as in the movie, Ratatouille.

    Hydroponics-June.jpg (114459 bytes)
    The hydroponics garden is now finally in action with many lettuces growing. They decided we're not allowed to grow anything remotely interesting, such as tomatoes, because the plants flower and somehow this violates the Antarctic treaty, despite other Antarctic stations growing things such as tomatoes and cucumbers. They take away all of the seeds in summer and send new seeds down at the beginning of winter, except that again this year, the April cargo flight never eventuated, so we didn't receive the seeds until last week. The regular-ish winter flights almost make the hydroponics redundant as we get fresh food deliveries on the irregular cargo flights.

  • 12/6/2016: The single cargo flight on Wednesday, the first one in three months, has everyone excited except the cargo handlers who have been working long hours. Aside from some well received fresh fruit and vegetables, we also received many parts and equipment to progress various stagnant jobs. I've got enough to keep myself busy for a few months at least.

    On the down side, the Americans had a lot of vehicle trouble in the -40C temperatures with taking northbound cargo to the airfield. The extra time spent on the ground meant the waiting C17 aircraft burnt more fuel than expected, so it wasn't able to carry as much load on the return journey to Christchurch, meaning that none of the Scott Base northbound mail or cargo made it out of here. Again.

    A huge thank-you to friends and family who sent all the lovely care packages, including some of my favourite craft beers!

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    The scene at Pegasus Airfield on Wednesday afternoon: the US Air Force C17 being unloaded. McMurdo Station also have a change in 27 staff members, though no change to the Scott Base staff.

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    Some of the unpacked cargo at Scott Base awaiting collection. A combination of personal deliveries and parts/equipment for work.

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    Also in the cargo was a secret delivery of some costumes for filming promotional material for an upcoming movie.

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    Some of the parts I received this week meant I could complete many waiting jobs, such as this 50W RF power amplifier for the duplex telephone link to the Italian's Mario Zucchelli Station approximately 400km away.

  • 5/6/2016: The start of the month means it's a two-day weekend for us. A welcome relief at this time of the year when everyone is getting wary from the constant darkness and 6-day work weeks. Of course it's a three-day weekend back home in New Zealand, with Monday being the Queen's Birthday observation. We celebrated the event last night with a live music party in the Scott Base vehicle workshop. A similar event we held in 2013 was particularly successful, so we held the same event again. It was all plain sailing until the weather forecast was for unfavourable weather, meaning that the Americans from McMurdo Station would not have been able to make it, meaning there'd be no live music and we'd have about 10 people at the party, not 60 or more. Fortunately the weather turned out to be not too bad, so the live music party all went as planned last night. While it was a lot of fun to host the event, it was also a lot of work. It took most of Saturday to set up and I've just finished most of Sunday cleaning up. So that was my weekend been and gone.

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    This was my band's live music set for the Scott Base Queen Party last night. The line-up included five other bands from McMurdo. There's been a very active music scene this winter, vastly different to last year where there were seemingly very few musicans about. From left to right there's Julie, Zac, myself, Mark and Ursula.

    Zac-mixer_setup.jpg (141890 bytes)
    One of my good friends, Zac the McMurdo carpenter, setting up the sound mixer for the party music. He's been the drummer in my band since 2013 and has an actual qualification in music. Due to his skillset, his music skills usually end up being part of many other station bands.

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    A drinks cooler for the party using a plastic tub and a loader scoop of snow.

    MarkW_haircut.jpg (80137 bytes)
    One of the things you wouldn't realise is an issue is that there's no hairdresser shop when you need a trim. So inevitably everyone ends up looking quite feral at this time of year. Some people try their hand at haircutting, which usually results in varying degrees of fashion disasters. Pictured above is Gracie and Mark from McMurdo in the Scott Base carpenter's workshop, which is often the makeshift hairdressing salon. Mark is the McMurdo weather observer and also the bass player in my band. His haircut ended up being some kind of nasty mullet, which resulted in him looking like some kind of red-neck trucker. I ended up with my name shaved into the side of my head.

    BillH_IcePier_presentation.jpg (121814 bytes)
    Bill Henriksen, the McMurdo Station winter manager, gave us a short presentation on the work that goes on for the ice pier construction. This is what the annual resupply ships dock to for station resupply every January. Sometimes the ice piers can last as long as ten years, but in recent times they've only lasted a year or two, meaning that once it breaks up and becomes unusable in summer, a new one needs to be constructed over winter by freezing 100mm at a time of sea water pumped into a snow berm until there's a giant ice block around 5 metres thick.