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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March 2015
  • 29/3/2015: On fire crew this week, so I'm staying home at Scott Base for the one-day weekend. Not that this usually involves much work, it's just that you're not to leave base without someone to take your place on the duty fire crew, which is usually a pain in the arse to find someone who can do your position on the crew (I'm in the BA or breathing apparatus team) and who isn't going to be away from base. We have a fire drill once per month, plus the occasional false alarm; such as the one last night where one of the NZ Army people found it a bit cold at -20C in the small smokers' shack outside, so put a 3kW electric heater in there, which made the small hut so hot it tripped the heat detector. The number of people on base at present (28) means there's enough people for three fire crews, so I'm only on duty once every three weeks, as opposed to every second week as it usually is over winter.

    A little more action than usual in Scott Base engineering this week after one of the air handler heating coils froze, causing the copper tubes to rupture and spill about a thousand litres of heating loop water through the building. The air handlers consist of a fan that continuously circulates air past a copper coil, similar to a radiator in a car. When the control system decides to heat the room, it drives a pump that pushes hot water from the central heating loop through the coil. When it decides the room is too hot or the carbon dioxide levels are too high, the control system opens dampers that vent stale air outside and brings in (cold) fresh air from outside. The coil freezing problem developed due to the outside damper getting stuck open while there was no hot water being driven through the coil, hence the air at -20C caused the water in the coil to freeze and the copper tubes to split.

    There was a trip organised last night where people could go out to the field training camp (about a 15 minute Hagglund drive) and stay outside overnight in tents. I'm not silly enough to want that kind of torture, but they still managed to muster up a group of about a dozen keen newbies. It probably wasn't very pleasant last night; the wind was around 20 knots all night with a temperature of a consistent -17C. They arrived back this morning all complaining of how cold it was and little sleep they got. Can't say I'm surprised.

    Damaged_air_handler_coil.jpg (154695 bytes)
    Myself (left) and Andy the water engineer (right) removed the air handler copper coil for repair after a stuck outside air damper caused the water inside the coil to freeze and the copper tubes to split, losing around 1000 litres of heating water and triggering dozens of plant alarms.

    Heating_loop_water_outside.jpg (142406 bytes)
    The ruptured air handler coil (above) leaked so much heating water that it flooded the under floor space in the kitchen then started running out small gaps in the freezer panel and onto the ground outside. The photo above shows the heating loop water running downhill from under the kitchen building.

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    And at long last the waste water gantry has been repaired after it was damaged by passing icebergs about a year ago. The heated and insulated pipe returns processed and ozone treated water from the waste water plant back to the ocean. The returned water is clear and virtually drinkable.

    Ob_Hill_cross.jpg (157973 bytes)
    Becky's dramatic monochrome shot of the Memorial Cross on top of Observation Hill, set up in 1913 in memorial to Captain Scott who died in 1912 while trying to reach South Pole. Now over 100 years old, the cross has become a little weather beaten, plus over summer some people from the NZ Army defaced the cross by scratching their initials into it, presumably in an attempt to make the place feel a little more like a South Auckland ghetto. So last week the Scott Base carpenter put a plywood shroud over the cross to protect it from the winter wind and blowing grit until it can be restored by the Antarctic Heritage Trust this coming summer.

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    The west wall of the Scott Base field centre building, currently receiving a major internal re-fit this winter. It's the newest building on site, less than 10 years old, and it's already deemed to be not fit for purpose due to the science community now saying they want something different. In another few year's time, they'll ask a different group of scientists what they want, which will be something totally different, so it'll be back to the drawing board yet again.

    Molly_Crater_Hill_28-3-15.jpg (121641 bytes)
    Was actually a fairly nice day yesterday with little wind for once, so Molly, pictured above, gave me a hand setting up a new antenna (below) on one of the Crater Hill antenna towers.

    900MHz_collinear_antenna.jpg (65626 bytes)
    The new 900MHz collinear antenna we installed at Crater Hill yesterday will receive telemetry data from sea ice probes set up over winter to measure the rate of sea ice growth as part of an experiment being run by Otago University. They've been running this for a few years now, previously all data was only recorded locally at the measuring site. So the Scott Base science technician would have to go out every few weeks and download the data. But they somehow managed to screw it up on a number of occasions last year and leave the equipment in a state where it wasn't recording any data. After hearing about how the experiment was being run, I suggested better ways of approaching the entire thing; how hard is it to send a bit of data over radio? Not hard at all of course, so not only do you not have to constantly waste time and fuel by driving to the probe site all of the time, you can immediately have the logged data on hand, and know immediately if something isn't working as it should be.

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    The token shot of McMurdo Station as seen from the top of Crater Hill yesterday. It's all looking very white all of a sudden due to a few recent snow falls.

  • 22/3/2015: A constant week work wise with the usual documentation work, winter maintenance of communications equipment, etc. There is a regular maintenance schedule for all of the many vehicles, so every 50 hours the mechanic conducts routine checks of things such as oil levels, brake fluid, coolant levels, etc. Then longer term scheduled services covers oil changes, filter changes and more. One of the many things on my maintenance list is annual inspections of the 2-way radios that are fitted to each of the vehicles. These usually require minimum work except from when one of my predecessors has made an average job of the installation, requiring antennas to be re-terminated, power cables correctly fused, etc.

    But enough about boring work stuff. The weekend was fairly interesting as Scott Base held the (belated) St Patrick's annual party in the bar. As everyone else does worldwide, this involves drinking a lot of Guinness and Kilkenny and optionally dressing up in some stupid costume, usually coloured green. One thing I dislike even more than loud shouty parties is loud shouty parties that feature any kind of annoying dress-up. Hence a bunch of us do what we usually do in such situations and watched a bunch of music videos and drank beer. A far more relaxing way to spend the evening.

    Sunday was great too. A truly excellent lunch at the McMurdo galley followed by afternoon beers in the Southern Exposure bar, open over winter as a lounge.

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    St Patrick's Day was on Tuesday, so Tracy the chef decorated the kitchen in a green Irish theme with a bunch of green coloured food.

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    The typical dinner scene in the Scott Base dining room at 6PM. I'm on the left, enjoying a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale from McMurdo.

    Morning_sundogs.jpg (97215 bytes)
    We're just on the equinox, which is approximately equal hours of darkness and daylight, and also about the same daylight hours as southern New Zealand at present. Some great sunrises and sunsets at this time of the year, the photo above showing what's known as sun dogs.

    Molly_wind_turbine_broken.jpg (135053 bytes)
    Here's Molly pointing angrily at the computer monitor which is showing that one of the three wind turbines is reporting another issue, requiring a trip up to the wind farm to reset the failed system to re-start the turbine. Seems to be a pretty common occurrence. The wind farm is often in one of two states; it's either broken or it's about to break.

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    The sea ice edge beside Observation Hill as viewed from the Scott Base road last Sunday during a walk to McMurdo Station.

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    After base meeting yesterday, they decided it was time for a group photo in the hangar as the new floor is almost finished. Here's Lex and Graeme looking a little anxious because few people actually like doing these group photos.

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    And the resulting group shot in the hangar. The NZ Army light engineering guys have made an outstanding job of laying the 17,000 or so concrete pavers for the new floor.

  • 15/3/2015: The rapidly cooling temperatures as low as -28C this week hasn't helped motivation of the NZ Army Light Engineering Team working on the hangar refurbishment. Over the last few weeks they've ripped up the old concrete, steel and ice floor to make way for the new floor of concrete pavers. Although it's inside work and they're sheltered from the wind, the building has no insulation, no heating; few windows to let in natural light and is jokingly said to be the coldest building in Antarctica. Though whenever you walk in there it somehow feels colder than the ambient temperature outside. The 17,000 pavers are almost half in place, due to be completed next week. Come to think of it, I should have taken some progress photos....

    I've started a bit of winter maintenance work in the way of testing and replacing some troublesome solar regulators and other mundane jobs. Nothing terribly exciting. Although we did wind up the work week on Saturday evening with a home brew night. Which included some beer brewed onsite by Graeme, a couple of brews I made with friends in Christchurch just before the start of the Scott Base summer season in October, plus few different beers brewed by my friend Andrew in Christchurch. What a fantastic way to finish a busy week!

    March_snow.jpg (150692 bytes)
    With temperatures generally hanging around the -20C mark and ever decreasing sunlight hours, it doesn't take long for new snow to settle on the ground in what will soon be permanent for winter.

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    Graeme and Keith remove the treated waste water outflow gantry for repair after it was damaged by passing icebergs a year ago when the sea ice last broke out.

    Field_centre_ex_base_food_chiller.jpg (150055 bytes)
    The construction crew are hacking into the mammoth job of the field centre rebuild. For those that know Scott Base, the area on the left is where the AFCC beer store and the base food fridge used to be.

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    What used to be the Scott Base gymnasium is to become some kind of breakout room with a kitchenette and seating. They're adding two new windows on the south side of the building.

    Field_centre_wall_construction.jpg (83492 bytes)
    For interests sake, this is how the walls are constructed. The outside is about 300mm of foam sandwich panel - expanded polystyrene with sheet steel on either side. Then an air gap for structural steel framing, pipes, wiring and air ducting. The room inside walls are standard Gib plaster board (dry wall) on steel framing.

    March_sun_behind_SB.jpg (131477 bytes)
    A random shot into the sunlight out the front of Scott Base while working outside on Friday. Was a chilly morning at -28C but the sunshine and no wind made it fairly pleasant.

    Frozen_pig.jpg (126910 bytes)
    What's this hiding in the food freezer container? Erreeeeee! I bet you can squeal, boy. I'm thinking mid-winter spit roast.

  • 7/3/2015: So after nearly a week of mechanical breakdowns and waiting for aircraft parts, the final flight of the summer season was last Thursday evening, almost a week behind schedule. The final flight is usually celebrated by the winter staff with a glass of Champagne, though there seemed to be fewer festivities than usual this time. Probably due to the fact this is not actually the final flight at all; this winter they're aiming for a flight every six weeks for the purpose of cargo supply and staff movement.

    It's also our first 2-day weekend, which is something they do over winter which helps a little in avoiding total insanity. It's usually a 6-day working week, but the first Saturday of each month is a day off work. Though as all weekends go, they're never quite long enough.

    TVNZ were kind enough to donate us a DVD of Nigel Latta's recently released documentary that was filmed last summer at Scott Base. We received that yesterday in the cargo from the final summer flight, so we'll have a viewing session in the bar tonight. Recreation wise things have been going well enough with the Friday darts sessions at Scott Base starting from last night. We've also received some of the live Super Rugby courtesy of my bosses at Telecom NZ International, which arrives over the video conference network. It's sent at a low data rate over the satellite link, so the resulting video image is very 'chunky' and slow to update, though the audio is clear. Enough to see what's going on and that's about it, but certainly a lot better than nothing.

    Work wise, it's been another mundane week of dealing with wind farm data problems, Emails and helping science events plan various work for next season.

    Container_stands_crane.jpg (96616 bytes)
    The construction crew have been busy getting the container stands ready to receive the new fridge and freezer containers; food storage has now been moved out of the field centre and is to be temporarily located outside the kitchen. Long term, permanent walk-in freezers will be built adjacent to the kitchen as the long term upgrade project progresses. Makes sense to store all of the food right beside the kitchen, as opposed to the opposite end of the base, as it was previously.

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    Corporal Armstrong drives the D6 bulldozer to move the freezer containers into position to be lifted onto the waiting container stand.

    Temporary_freezers_installed.jpg (84533 bytes)
    The installed food storage containers; one fridge and two freezers. And gone is the once lovely view of Mt Discovery from my workshop window. The fridge container only needs heating as inside it needs to be about +4 degrees C all year round. The freezers contain both heating and cooling. In winter, ambient temperatures can often be below -40C meaning that food would be damaged; it's supposed to be stored at a regulated -18C. Winter can be as high as -8C and summer around +4C; hence the freezer containers do require a form of cooling as well.

    Andrill_containers_bermed.jpg (118966 bytes)
    A couple of photos here from Becky, since mine are ridiculously boring. Obviously a crane lifting containers was the lame highlight of the week. The photo above is of Lex by the Andrill containers near Willy's Field. They're bermed (positioned onto a specially prepared snow platform) to prevent blowing snow over winter from burying the containers. Even as they are now, they will much snow shovelling at the start of next summer to open the container doors.

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    The "square frame", our home-away-from-home recreation building, also gets dragged out of the snow and re-bermed prior to winter. Else it slowly disappears under the ever growing snow pack.

  • 1/3/2015: Temperatures plummeted to a new low for the year early on Monday morning, dropping from a fairly mild -6C to -21C in the space of a few hours. A sure sign that winter is just around the corner. It's almost dark at night too with the sun setting at 11PM and rising at 5AM, though even at 2AM it's still fairly bright outside as the sun is only just below the horizon. We'll continue to lose around 20 minutes of daylight per day until the last sunrise in about six weeks.

    One flight to go until the official last one of summer. Actually it was supposed to be yesterday, but there was a 48-hour mechanical breakdown delay announced, so the last flight is now tomorrow. Flight delays caused by weather and mechanical breakdowns are a very common part life here, so most people are wise enough not to plan connecting flights and important events for immediately when they're scheduled to be back in Christchurch, because flight plans inevitably change at the last minute.

    Though it's not really the 'last' flight; unlike previous winters, there are scheduled flights every six weeks for delivery of cargo and staff exchange. I suspect these flights will depend heavily around what the winter time weather does, so delays in the flight schedule are a high probability.

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    Outside the dining room, work is progressing on the foundations for the temporary container stands, which will hold the base food freezer and fridge containers until the new permanent freezers are built on the end of the kitchen as part of the Scott Base master upgrade plan over the next few years. Over the top of the TAE hut (centre) the dark line on the sea ice is the open ocean which is beginning to re-freeze with the temperatures dropping this week.

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    One of my other part time jobs (aside from fire crew, radio station DJ, receptionist, kitchen hand and everything else) is bartender. This photo from a few weeks ago before the summer crew started leaving.

    Nuclear_plant_plaque.jpg (149188 bytes)
    It's not all that well known that there used to be a nuclear power plant at McMurdo Station. It was built in 1962 as a form of low cost heating and electricity production, though it was plagued with ongoing issues and turned out to be much more expensive to maintain than first expected. As a result the plant was shut down in 1972 and everything removed from the site. All that remains there today are two wooden platforms that were the bases of two buildings, plus the plaque shown above. Some great photos and discussions of the history of the PM-3A nuclear plant here, here and here. Also, here's an interesting scanned brochure from someone who wintered at Scott Base in 1967. The brochure was given out to people who visited the plant while it was in operation.

    Field_camp_from_air.jpg (141209 bytes)
    People are going to complain if I put up lots of photos of radios and stuff, which is pretty much all I have at present, so time to borrow a couple of photos from some of the field trainers from over the summer season. This is the field training camp as seen from the air. All staff and most visitors undergo a day or two of field training which teaches the correct clothing to wear outside, how to use polar tents and other outdoor equipment, etc.

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    An Antarctic Skua mid-flight among the sea ice. Aside from Weddell Seals and Americans, these scavenging birds are the most common wild life seen from Scott Base. Yes, that thing would definitely peck your eyes out.