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)
March 2016
  • 27/3/2016: The planets and weather systems aligned on Tuesday for the Boeing 575 flight from Christchurch to make its return journey to Pegasus Airfield, on which we got some mail and I received some parts to make progress with various jobs, which has been great.

    We almost forgot about Easter again until we received an invite to an Easter party last night at the McMurdo Fuels Barn. This consisted of hunting for "Antarctic Easter Eggs" (decorated beer cans) then drinking them as quickly as possible. Aside from these rare breaks from reality, all of Easter is just another work day for us.

    Gantry_view_sunset.jpg (84214 bytes)
    We past the equinox on Tuesday, meaning we now have more hours of sundown than the sun is above the horizon. The good side of this is that there's some fantastic sunrise and sunsets to be seen when it's not too cloudy.

    Antz-RO_intake_under_water.jpg (63274 bytes)
    Anthony Powell used his underwater camera to take this photo of the sea water intake pipe (supported by the gantry pictured above). The wheel looking thing with the bent post is the bottom support for the NIWA tide gauge which is currently still not operational since a passing iceberg appears to have bent the support tube. I'm not sure how they're going to get it out to fix it, last time that happened they had some divers on site one summer to sort it out.

    ContainerDock-HermanNelson.jpg (101681 bytes)
    The Leighs Construction guys leave in under two weeks. Their many long work days have put them ahead of schedule with most of the major work on the new container lab dock (above) and warm porch completed. They're now focusing on many of the smaller detailed jobs, such as fitting flashing to the edges of panelling.

    Leighs_crane.jpg (119646 bytes)
    Leighs have also finished using the crane they sent down on the container ship in January. The trouble is that the next ship is due next January, which is a lot of time to have an expensive machine sitting idle. They're considering sending it back on one of the coming US Air Force C17 flights.

    Hagglunds_cold_parked.jpg (64478 bytes)
    Hagglunds tracked vehicles cold parked outside for the winter.

    Hitching_rail_sunset.jpg (126682 bytes)
    White Island now looking very pink due to the red sky of the sunset at 8PM on Tuesday.

    Antz-TAE_hut_sunset.jpg (139497 bytes)
    Having a professional photographer on station is a massive bonus when it comes to gathering interesting photos. Anthony Powell's photos are significantly better than my meagre efforts. This one and the four below from him. This is the TAE Hut in the foreground of a sunset during the week.

    Antz-FullMoonARM.jpg (210353 bytes)
    The full moon this week created some great photo opportunities for Anthony Powell, including this shot of the moon above the Americans' new ARM facility. No, I don't know what it stands for, or what it does. Something to do with atmospheric research.

    Antz-SB_equinox.jpg (135006 bytes)
    Quad-copter view of Scott Base during the equinox evening on Tuesday. The bright patch of light in the centre is from the light tower which illuminates the vehicle hitching rail area in the hours of darkness.

    Antz-ErebusReflection.jpg (138046 bytes)
    I'm not sure where Anthony Powell took this photo from, but it's Mt Erebus with a reflection in some calm sea water that hasn't yet refrozen.

  • 20/3/2016: A week of weather delays continues to hamper the NZ Air Force Boeing 757 flight from Christchurch. However, the weather has been surprisingly good this week, with days of no wind and no cloud; but potential fog at the Pegasus ice runway has caused continued delays and even a 'return to NZ' when the aircraft reached its 4-hour PSR (point of safe return). The aircraft does not have sufficient fuel to fly all the way to Antarctica and back to NZ without being refuelled at Pegasus, so when reaching the PSR, pilots call ahead to check that weather conditions are suitable for landing. If it's looking anything except perfect, they abort the flight and return to Christchurch.

    However, the criteria for what's safe for landing seems to be incredibly tight. If it can't land in perfect blue sky conditions, no wind and no visible fog we could see at the runway, when can it land? The weather we had this week was about as good as it ever gets here. I can't help wondering if their criteria for landing conditions is now set as next to impossible due to the inquiry that resulted from the NZ Air Force B757 with Minister McCully on board in October 2013. This event where the plane had to make a forced landing due to sudden thick fog developing at Pegasus Airfield, resulted in an inquiry which essentially said that the weather conditions in Antarctica are very changeable. And perhaps they now have some unrealistic conditions set for landing. As part of the 'joint logistics pool' between the New Zealand and American Antarctic programmes, the NZ Air Force schedule a number of flights to the icy continent. It would seem that the flights are scheduled, even though it's now impossible for them to actually deliver this B757 flight due to landing criteria that can never be met.

    Anyway, on this flight there is a garage door contractor from Scott Base returning home to NZ, and most of the others leaving are 20-something personnel from the NZ Defence Force who have been working at McMurdo for the last month or two. The contribution of this labour component is another part of this joint logistics pool.

    Aside from these flight dilemmas, it's been a fairly fun week with a bit of live Irish music at McMurdo Station on St Patrick's Day, and Scott Base hosted an Irish themed party last night. My job as the bartender for the night was fast paced but enjoyable.

    Sea_ice_reforming.jpg (81460 bytes)
    The sea ice in front of Scott Base has mostly reformed this week. The calm winds allowed ice to grow on the surface of the still ocean water, which now has 1-2cm of ice. Unless we get some stormy weather soon, the ice will stay and quickly get thicker. It won't be long until it has grown thick enough to walk on again.

    Karl_Katrina.jpg (128247 bytes)
    Karl and Katrina had their cameras out during one a windless evening to take photos of penguins, seals and whales by the Scott Base coastline.

    Intake_gantry_observation.jpg (103494 bytes)
    The sea water intake gantry is an ideal place to look down the coastline at ocean wildlife.

    Stage6_dump_door.jpg (93538 bytes)
    Waste heat from the generators are used for heating air and water at Scott Base, but when the generators are producing more heat than can be used, these doors in the side of the building open to automatically vent excess heat from the heating loop, otherwise the generators would over heat. It seems incredibly wasteful to burn upwards of a thousand litres of diesel per day to generate power and vent this heat when the wind farm isn't producing enough energy, but unfortunately there isn't anything set up to store waste heat so that it can be used when it's later needed.

    Antz_SB_sunset.jpg (133541 bytes)
    With the equinox (12 hours of daylight, 12 hours of darkness) here in the next day or two, there are some fantastic sunsets to be seen. This photo taken by professional photographer, Anthony Powell, using his quad-copter mounted camera.

    Vonny-sunset.jpg (134764 bytes)
    From Vonny, another sunset photo looking across the open sea water and ice shelf.

  • 13/3/2016: It's been not nearly as eventful this week as it was last week, hence I'm struggling to think of what's been remotely interesting over the last six days. And the answer is: not that much. I've been spending a fair bit of time recently dealing with a company called Garmin; we use their GPS and RADAR products in the tracked vehicles - Hagglunds and Pisten Bully snow-cats. After purchasing some new units, it appears that Garmin have dropped support for latitudes below 60 degrees south, we're at 77 degrees (the south pole is 90 degrees), so are having problems with GPS maps. We use Garmin marine models, and I suppose they figure that no-one would ever want to take their boat very far south. So this now poses an issue for everyone using Garmin products in Antarctica, and anyone owning a boat and a sense of adventure.

    At least there was one significant highlight for the week though. As they said in The Blues Brothers, "We're gettin' the band back together!" I'm pressuring a number of Americans into forming a band, and from our first practice session during the week it's been so far, so good. Two of them have been my former band mates from the past five years, so it's been fun to play some of the old songs we used to do again.

    Andy-beaked_whales.jpg (55298 bytes)
    This photo, taken by Andy the water engineer, is what's whipping the whale science community into a frenzy. I think the story also made it into the media. Andy took some jumping whale photos this week and sent them in to identify the unusual looking whales, and apparently they're known as beaked whales and it's unusual for them to be this far south, or something. I have as much interest in whales, jumping or not, than most people have in things I find interesting, such as radio transmitters and antennas. Needless to say, I have many photos of radio things, significantly fewer photos of whales.

    Antz-Drone_view_of_SB.jpg (185011 bytes)
    Station photographer, Anthony Powell, has been taking some great time lapse videos of sunsets and ice floating in the water. He's also been using his remote controlled quad-copter to take some interesting aerial shots of things, such as this one, looking directly down at Scott Base.

    Row_of_older_Hagglunds.jpg (60677 bytes)
    I grabbed this photo of a row of older Hagglunds during a job outside. These older petrol powered models have mainly been superceded by the modern re-built diesel powered machines, which are more efficient, more reliable, quieter and more comfortable to travel in. They're looking to sell some of these older models as they buy the rebuilt replacements at around NZ$350,000 each.

  • 5/3/2016: The big highlight of the week for everyone was the sea ice break out at lunchtime on Monday. It had been looking reasonably solid until sudden large cracks began developing in the ice, and in the short space of an hour or two, the typical view of frozen ocean out the window was transformed into open ocean with whales and penguins just out the back door.

    The other interesting event of the week was the visit from the Australians from Davis Station. Normally they have a two week boat trip directly from their station to Hobart, Australia. But due to problems with their ship, the US Air Force transported the 35 Australians 2800km from Davis to McMurdo Station where they stayed overnight before the Australian Air Force flew them back home. They seemed overjoyed at the opportunity to have dinner with us at Scott Base, and in true Aussie style, weren't afraid to give the bar a bit of a nudge that night either.

    Ice_breakout1.jpg (115917 bytes)
    Let's start with a series of sea ice breakout progression photos. The series of large cracks suddenly appeared at mid-day on Monday.

    Ice_breakout2.jpg (116382 bytes)
    Cracks becoming much bigger over the space of half an hour.

    Ice_breakout3.jpg (123886 bytes)
    They made a dash to the sea water intake gantry to lift it out of the water using the cable winch on the D4 dozer. When the ice broke out this time two years ago, they didn't winch it clear of the water and a passing iceberg caused major damage.

    Karl_on_front_deck.jpg (118675 bytes)
    Karl on the front deck enjoying the rapidly changing scenery.

    Ice_breakout4.jpg (127648 bytes)
    Large ice sheets quickly began to split apart and head out of McMurdo Sound on the outgoing tide, assisted by the wind.

    Ice_breakout5.jpg (102446 bytes)
    A few last scrappy chunks of ice floating away.

    Ice_breakout6.jpg (109152 bytes)
    And finally open ocean. A number of killer whales appeared soon afterwards, probably hoping for an easy snack of seals and penguins fleeing from the breaking ice.

    Penguins_on_iceberg.jpg (74480 bytes)
    We're still seeing regular bits of ice float past the window, some of them littered with penguins and seals.

    Sea_intake_gantry.jpg (111029 bytes)
    Fortunately the sea water intake gantry survived this time, winching it away of the harm of large icebergs saved a repeat of the 2014 gantry mangling incident. The gantry also holds the nitrogen bubbler tube for the NIWA tide gauge. During the gantry lifting, the plastic tube was damaged due to being encased in ice, so the tide gauge is currently waiting on some repair work before it's operational again.

    Aussie_visit_1-3-16.jpg (76819 bytes)
    The 35 Australians from Davis Station were invited to have dinner with us on Tuesday night. So for a few hours our quiet population of 20 people increased to 55 while they enjoyed the company of Scott Base that evening.

    Container_dock_roof_on.jpg (113595 bytes)
    The Leighs construction crew have been making the most of the increasingly less nice days to get the outside work done. Most of the refrigeration panelling work on the Field Centre expansions is now complete.

    Container_dock_work_10PM.jpg (102189 bytes)
    Because the construction crew are leaving in a little over a month, they're putting in a huge number of hours each week to meet the deadline of the 8th of April. Windy weather this week has slowed the work of lifting on exterior panels with the crane, so when the opportunity of a windless day appears, they're often working to 10PM as in the photo above.

    Warm_porch_roof_on.jpg (119961 bytes)
    Cladding for the warm porch is now complete and installation of the doors is underway.

    Sunset_sea_fog.jpg (103958 bytes)
    The sun setting around 10:30PM and the mist rising off the now open ocean makes for some spectacular evening viewing.