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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May 2013
  • 26/5/2013: Work this week consisted of yet more documentation. As boring as it can be, it's necessary to have a decent set of handover notes so that the next guy in this job has a hope of understanding what goes on with any one piece of equipment.

    Recruiting and interviews are just about underway for the person to do my job at the end of my contract in October. Apparently they have 3 reasonable candidates short listed, so I'm confident they should be able to find someone capable.

    The indoor mini-golf tournament here last Sunday was fairly quiet, there were a handful of Americans who came over to participate. I think most of the people had more fun building the challenges than they did playing it. I'm not the golfing type myself, plus I lack the patience.

    Next weekend is a bit special as it's both a long (2-day) weekend and they're having a big party in the vehicle workshop for Queen's Birthday. They've opted for a Queen theme, which is open to the imagination. I've heard suggestions ranging from Priscilla Queen of the Desert to the Queen of Hearts to Freddie Mercury from the band 'Queen' to a drag queen. Interesting. Though it's a bit of a struggle for live music this season as there are very few musicians at McMurdo. I think there's one McMurdo band intending to perform something. Against the odds, I've put together a short set of music from Credence Clearwater Revival, Violent Femmes and perhaps the Sex Pistols (God Save the Queen). My drummer is a sleepy hobbit. I'm doing guitar and vocals; though I'm terrible at vocals. My bass player is purely imaginary (non-existent). My harmonica player is the 2nd in command boss from McMurdo that everyone seems to be scared of.

    Oh, and apparently I've got an election campaign running to become the area manager for McMurdo Station. No idea what this is, but a group of people thought I should be one of the candidates. Your guess is as good as mine!

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    Tim the Hobbit took this photo of an Aurora around 11AM during the week which made it onto the TV1 weather broadcast back in NZ.

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    Molly's mini golf challenge, made from bits and pieces found around the electrician's workshop.

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    In true Antarctic Heritage Trust style, the conservators, who are always arty-types, constructed this elaborate golf challenge including a sand trap made from tent liners, a water trap, planets and more.

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    Being a tent expert, Mike constructed a golf obstacle from a polar tent in the field centre.

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    Meanwhile in the carpenter's workshop, Colin had created some kind of golf labyrinth.

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    I forget exactly what I did on the golf day, but it was probably something productive. I do recall doing some work on the Codan 400W HF SSB transmitters at some point among the endless documentation work.

  • 19/5/2013: For the first time in weeks I managed to get out on Monday; for a job at the Satellite Station. Getting out and about seems to be a rare treat as half the time you've got no reason to get out, or the weather is too nasty, or you're on fire crew, or you're preoccupied with something else, or it's just too much time and effort to do after work. Going for a walk is a big enough task in itself by the time you write your departure in the sign-out book, check in with the person on 'mouse' duty, put on all of the outside clothes, find your head torch, realise the torch batteries are flat, try and find new batteries, etc. You're almost exhausted before you even get going. But Monday was one of those rare occasions where it was fairly warm at only -20C and there was no wind. It's always nice to get out during those rare periods of settled weather.

    There's some kind of indoor mini-golf thing here today. A number of people have been making elaborate golf hole challenges. The Americans are also invited to take part. This is something they do each year, so it's been in the planning for a few weeks now. A few days ago someone realised we've only got one or two golf balls. There used to be a lot more of them, but last winter's crew seem to have somehow lost them all. So we managed to borrow enough extras from McMurdo to make it all happen.

    I really don't have the patience for golf. Besides, I'd probably end up turning the dining room into a driving range. And a broken window would not be much fun for anyone. Someone was planning a trip to McMurdo this morning for Sunday brunch, so I might tag along for that. I've never been over for brunch with the Americans, so could be an interesting experience. And rumour has it they have some salmon fillets available. I'm in!

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    The job at the Satellite Station was refitting and testing the backup power amplifier after it was returned on the American's medical evacuation flight last week. This unit amplifies the 6GHz uplink signal to around 10W for transmission to the satellite over 38,000km away. There are two units; one primary plus a backup.

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    Time for a quick cable inspection around the known problem areas. There's just enough light left at mid-day to see where you're walking outside without any other light source.

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    The field centre was unusually stinky at times this week. Turns out the Antarctic Heritage Trust Conservators were conserving Captain Shackleton's old wooden boxes containing mouldy flour.

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    Becky took this mid-day photo of McMurdo Station; which appears to be the view from Observation Hill. Click on the image to see the bigger panorama view.

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    Another of Becky's nice panoramic photos showing McMurdo Station on the left, Crater Hill and the wind farm in the centre, with the lights of Scott Base just visible on the far right. Click on the photo for a bigger view.

  • 12/5/2013: The Americans had their second medical evacuation flight two days ago, just two weeks after the last one. One positive aspect to all of these very expensive unplanned flights is that we have the opportunity to receive a small amount of fresh food and other urgent freight. So breakfast this morning was tomatoes on toast, fresh bananas and feijoa juice.

    Friday was also the night of the Greek dinner party. Only two people opted to wear bed sheets to the dinner table. Nearly everyone else dressed up in a more contemporary manner. The dinner was delicious, although Damian the chef was a little nervous about his Greek style lamb dish, cooked by wrapping in plastic and submerging in 60 degrees Celsius water for 30 hours. It was a little dry but very tender and of course enjoyed by everyone.

    By now you'll be thinking that my life at Scott Base revolves purely around food. In which case you'd be correct. Which reminds me; the vehicle workshop indoor barbeque last weekend was also a great success.

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    The Greek dinner on Friday. Note the bed sheet toga twins to the right.

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    Greek style fish in the foreground and lamb slow-cooked for 30 hours. Delicious!

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    Greek style desert which included some kind of biscuits that looked like boomerangs, sticky doughnut things and Greek Delight. Which is surprisingly the same as Turkish Delight, but with a different name.

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    Stefanie and Lex cooking the indoor barbecue in the welding bay, which happens to have a decent extractor fan to avoid setting off the fire alarm system. Trying to barbeque anything outside at -30C is a total waste of time.

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    But the problem with barbequing inside is that the beers get warm. A quick run outside with the loader to collect a little snow soon fixed that problem.

  • 5/5/2013: We're into the first sunlight free month of 2013, so now it's really starting to feel like winter. It's unusual how everyone reacts differently to this. Mike from field support had this shocked expression on his face and in an alarmed voice said "But I don't want it to be dark all the time!" It's not really as though you have a choice now, is it buddy?

    Social activity in Scott Base and with McMurdo Station remains healthy with the aims of keeping everyone in good spirits. Saturday a week ago was the Mexican night in the bar. This coming Friday is a Greek toga dinner. Not sure what that might involve aside from wearing bed sheets to the dining room, but I guess it's hard to be creative at times.

    Every Friday night is the continued winter tradition of darts night in the Scott Base bar with some Americans from McMurdo Station. It's always an enjoyable night with more emphasis on the social get-together than the actual game of darts. Yesterday we had a movie night with some invited 'regulars' from McMurdo. Always good fun. OK, it's not much and probably sounds really boring, but it's not as though we're overwhelmed with options of things to do.

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    Despite the weekend social events, the 6-day working week is always filled with work. At least it is for the more motivated individuals on station. Molly and I have nearly finished all of the extensive cabling work for the new engineering plant alarm system. The old system had evolved badly from a collection of very messy cabling and a bad design with many issues. Last week was a momentous occasion as we finally removed the central hub junction box from the old plant alarm system from which most of the messy cabling emanated from. As you can see from the photo, Molly is only too happy to be removing that POS.

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    At Scott Base there is an incredible amount of data recorded daily, weekly and monthly regarding fresh water use, fuel used, power used and much more. Most of the data has its uses; other data is collected for the sake of collecting data. "No one has ever looked at the data and no-one probably will, but we've always been collecting it". Am I the only one who realises what an utter waste of time this is? One example is that at the start of every month, there is an electricity meter in my workshop that is manually read and recorded by the electrician. This probably dates back to many years ago when they were recording some of the energy used by the Telecom NZ owned equipment, but for quite some time now, most of the Telecom equipment sources power elsewhere. But the meter is still read monthly because they've been doing it since the 1980s. Anyway, this all springs to mind because the meter is currently reporting 666 - the number of the beast.

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    I'm nearly finished the telephone auto receptionist system that I've been working on for the past six weeks. The hardware was completed two weeks ago and since then it's been embedded software development time. Just some final testing to be done and finishing touches on the software and it should be about finished this coming week.

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    Here's Jamie from the Antarctic Heritage Trust working on one of Captain Scott's 100 year old wooden storage boxes. He's an especially talented carpenter with a great eye for detail. He's from England and Scotland and has appeared with Kevin McCloud on Grand Designs before and he aims to work with Kevin after finishing the 2013 winter here at Scott Base.

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    Some of the more unusual 100 year old artefacts from Captain Scott's expedition currently being conserved by the Antarctic Heritage Trust includes this rusty spherical cheese tin. The unusually shaped can is two half-circles soldered together with the wax coated cheese inside. This rusty can still contained its original 'cheese' contents, which was a pretty smelly combination of bits of wax and highly deteriorated cheese powder.

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    Any guesses as to what this artefact is? The clue is that there's a set of four. They're pony snow shoes. I wouldn't say I'm the sharpest tool in the shed, but even I can see that bringing ponies to the Antarctic for Scott's trek to the South Pole in 1911 was a stupid idea. I suspect that the RSPCA may not be a huge fan of the Captain.

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    Yesterday we had yet another attempt of taking a staff winter-over photo, which included the new telehandler in the foreground and the new Hagglund in the rear. Click on the image for a larger view. I'm the one in blue. Does that telehandler make my arse look fat? No, it does that all by itself.

    All of the other photos have ended up in abysmal failure. In the more recent attempt a few weeks ago, I'd suggested re-creating a previous winter photo from the 1990s featuring the new Hagglund and new Scott Base sign. While the idea had potential, Becky the winter leader opted to take the photo in the middle of a storm. Unsurprisingly, everyone had to cover their faces from the razor sharp winds and those who didn't ended up with frost-nip. Hence in the photo you could only see the agonised faces of the people getting very painful frost-nip. It seemed I was the only one who thought that attempting to take a photo in these conditions was utterly stupid, but they persisted despite my repeated objections. Needless to say, I had to try extremely hard to supress my raging sarcasm when they reported that the resulting photo turned out poorly.