31/5/2015: I potentially spoke too soon about
everyone getting along. The wheels may be falling off the cart now,
which is inevitable at this time of the year anyway. Due to the now
constant darkness, everyone is becoming increasingly tired during
the six-day work week, so tempers are short and rational thought
The current red area seems to be around the policy of using vehicles
(Toyota Land Cruisers) below -30C. Over the years it came to be
understood that the vehicles suffered many problems below -30C, so
the policy was that below -30C the vehicles were not to be left
outside and below -35C use was limited to mission critical work only,
which is understandable. The fact that a vehicle designed for NZ
farm use (and for soccer mums driving their toddler to kindergarten)
actually works at -30C is nothing short of surprising. The newer
Toyotas which have now replaced the older fleet contain a lot of
electronic features which simply don't work properly, or at all, at
cold temperatures, which is understandable given that the Toyotas
simply were not designed for use in the Antarctica winter climate.
Everything has a minimum and maximum operating temperature range
and the temperature range of the Land Cruisers would seem to be a
grey area. So experience and knowledge gained over the years has
been used to determine the current minimum operating temperatures.
Anyway, the issue is that a few people had been complaining that
they don't like taking the 30-40 minute walk to McMurdo Station for
recreational activities so wanted to take a vehicle irrespective of
the temperature. They asked the opinion of Lex the vehicle mechanic;
with many years experience, he correctly said that because the
vehicles were not rated for these temperatures by the manufacturer,
there's no way he can guarantee their safety or reliability. And
because it's not the answer they wanted to hear, they're now opting
to throw caution to the wind and have a "trial period". The idea
being that if the new $90,000 vehicles gets damaged, the mechanic
can then work nights and days fixing them using parts we don't have;
or if the brakes fail and someone gets killed, then they may look at
an alternative plan.
Unsurprisingly, this is generating a vast rift of outcomes. The
few people who don't like a 30-minute walk are happy because they got
their way. Management seem to be happy because they have "beat the
system". The rest of us are left uneasy because the system is there
to keep people and equipment safe.
"Captain, Captain! The Titanic is headed straight for those
icebergs! She's not an icebreaker, should we change course to
avoid certain disaster?"
"Not at all number one! This maiden voyage is a trial period.
This ship's unsinkable, what's the worst that can happen? Full
With the two building apprentices, Blake and Peter, leaving on the
June flight on Wednesday, they decided to have a farewell party last
night. Unfortunately it was yet another dress-up party, which I
absolutely hate, so I stayed well clear of that. This morning they'd
made a fairly good job of cleaning the place from the horror themed
party, though this creepy character remained peering in the dining
As usual, there had to be yet another group photo. Fortunately I
managed to avoid this as well.
The miniature hydroponics garden has been growing some nice varieties
of lettuce this month. I've had any to eat yet, not sure where it
all goes, perhaps we have a rabbit problem? Better call in that
Unsure who took this photo two days ago looking south from the coast
line over the sea ice. It's taken at mid-day which is completely dark,
so they've used a long exposure to make it look lighter than is actually
is. The gantry visible on the right hand side supports the salt water
intake pipes for sea water to the reverse osmosis plant that produces all
of our fresh water.
24/5/2015: The monotony of winter has certainly
set in, though the scheduled flight in 10 days should help to pick
up spirits with the arrival of the long awaited fresh food and cargo
that never made it in April.
Everybody seems to be getting along surprisingly well despite having
a larger than usual crew of 19 on station. Progress on the Field
Centre rebuild is taking shape nicely; all of the new walls are in
place and are being lined at present. I'll post some photos in due
Otherwise, my work this week has been mostly mundane. I updated
70-something pages of Field Communications detail in the Field Manual
that gets issued to all staff and visitors. The communications section
hasn't received any major attention for many years, so it was overdue
for a major overhaul. And we ran a couple of new optical fibre
cables from the Hatherton Lab at one end of the base to the Field
Centre at the other end. The cable run is something like 250m.
Because it runs around many corners under a complicated under floor
route it took six of us most of a day just to run the cable in place.
Someone still needs to spend a week crawling the entire way and tie
it to the cable tray. Don't think it's going to be me somehow....
A typical linkway (hallway) in Scott Base, this one is in the
administration building which was renovated last winter. The
wooden floor is built about 600mm over the freezer panel that makes
up the actual base of the building, which is supported above the
ground on legs. Most floors have a shallow crawl space underneath
for running pipes and cables. Access is via dozens of small
hatchways; one of these is visible at the top of the stairs
Another typical linkway inside Scott Base, this one running
between the dining room on the left and staff accommodation to
the right. There are many such smoke-stop doors that all close
automatically when the fire alarm is activated.
Now that it's getting colder and windier, the various people
with their fat tyred bikes have been de-motivated a little. The
average daily temperature is around -30C. One of the guys here who
is a madly keen cyclist, got frost nip on his face without realising
it last week. An easy but painful mistake to make - essentially your
face goes numb and you can't feel it freezing until it's too late.
He explained some of the difficulties in biking in the cold; low
temperatures make the grease in the wheel and crank bearings very
thick and the brake cables become very stiff to operate, making
riding more difficult.
The Antarctica NZ General Operations manager, Graeme Ayres, who has
been on long term loan from the NZ Department of Conservation for the
last couple of years has now returned to DoC. We had a farewell
session with him in the Christchurch Office via video conference.
He's also an Antarctic veteran so has had a long history with Scott
Base. This is one of his favourite photos that he shared with us;
the view into the crater of Mt Erebus, taken in January this year.
17/5/2015: It's virtually dark outside all of
the time now, aside from a faint glow under the horizon for a couple
of hours in the middle of the day. That means it's not great for
taking photos outside.
We're well into the winter routine now, which for the past week has
involved a bunch of mundane technical documentation work for me.
And no-one wants to hear about that.
One highlight of the week was the live telephone interview I held
on our radio station with Richie Hunter from Kathmandu. Richie works
at Scott Base over summer as a field training instructor. He was
working as a guide on Mt Everest during the devastating Nepal
earthquakes last month. During the half hour interview, Richie
described the work and location followed by a terrifying rendition
of how the scene unfolded on Mt Everest during the first quake and
aftershocks. He was scheduled to fly back to NZ a few hours after
I talked to him on Monday.
Oh, and it turns out that the multiple fire alarms last week (see
below for the detail) was caused by an overheating crimp lug on a
cable. These new switchboards have been in service since about 2008
and they were pre-fabricated in NZ. Turns out that whoever built them
used the incorrect sized crimp lugs - 90mm2 lugs on a 70mm2 cable;
meaning they didn't fit correctly, eventually causing a high
resistance connection which got very hot under load, triggering the
fire alarm when the generator was running. Unfortunately there
are about 36 terminations now identified as having the incorrectly
sized crimp lugs, so Molly the electrician will be even busier
with all the remedial work of replacing the cables and lugs.
Most of the photos this week are from Katrina who worked an extended
contract from October to April here as the summer domestic (cleaner);
she left us just on a month ago. We received a lovely Email from her
this week saying how much she misses the place, plus a collection of
photos from the flight back to Christchurch.
A photo from yesterday - the Scott Base flag flies at half-mast
to mark the funeral of Dave Geddes, Operations Manager for
Antarctica New Zealand from 1986 to 1995.
This is Katrina, who worked an extended contract here at Scott Base
as the summer domestic (cleaner) from October until April. It's hard
to believe how much she loved the place, I've never seen someone so
sad to be going home. This week she sent us a fantastic collection of
photos of her return journey to Christchurch. This photo and the
three below from Katrina.
A couple of the American people-mover vans parked on the Pegasus
ice runway in front of the Australian Airbus four weeks ago.
You can just imagine all those soccer mums drooling in envy at
these Ford E350 vans. Sporting an 8-cylinder, 5.4 litre engine
with the fuel economy of a cold war Russian army tank; they're
the ideal fashion accessory to drive your toddler to the play
centre a couple of blocks away.
As Katrina was lucky enough to fly in a passenger Airbus, it meant
she had a view. I've only ever flown in the US Air Force C-17 cargo
aircraft, which essentially has no windows. But this is the view
from the window of the Airbus as it flew north over the icy
continent. This photo was taken an hour after take-off, meaning the
aircraft would be around 700-800km north of Scott Base, so close
to Cape Adare.
Another view out the Airbus window. This photo half an hour after
take-off, so approximately 300km north of Scott Base, probably making
this somewhere around the
Prince Albert Mountains,
inland from Terranova Bay.
10/5/2015: The long dreariness of darkness
is beginning to set in already. There's still a couple of hours
of dim light around mid-day, but already everyone seems to be
in a zombie-like state where you're often feeling tired and
it's a struggle to remain motivated throughout the day. It sure
doesn't help that we've had early morning fire alarms over the
past two days. 1AM Saturday I sat bolt upright in bed at the
abrupt screech of the fire alarm which includes a sadistically
calm recorded voice "evacuate the building via the nearest exit".
After being jolted awake in such a way, you're lacking all
ability of any logical thought, throwing clothes on, while
being glad you're not on fire crew. Then the reality hits home;
oh crap, I am on fire crew! It's obviously not a drill
at this time of the morning, so either a false alarm or the
real deal of something on fire.
Putting on the firefighting clothing seems to take an eternity as
you're still half asleep and blundering your way through it, then
you heave on the heavy self-contained breathing apparatus (BA) set
before helping my fire crew buddy, Andy, do the same thing. He's
relatively new to Scott Base and even sleepier and uncoordinated
as I am. We waddle down the linkway under the weight of the 20kg
BA set and see what the fire alarm location display reads on the
way past: Loc: Powerhouse, RO Plant, VESDA.
We arrive at the scene and the people on the early response crew
are nowhere in sight. Someone manages to find Ben, who somehow
mis-read the display as the field centre. Hardly surprising, he
works for the NZ Defence Force where basic literacy skills
appear to be an optional requirement for the job.
The VESDA (Very Early Smoke Detection Apparatus) shows a maximum
level reading for smoke and is flashing FIRE! We gingerly
enter the fire reported area and find....
The VESDA is not totally lying, it has a very sensitive nose and
there's the smell of something not quite right from the generator
switchboards. We get the generators shut down to be able to
hear each other while we look for the problem. The smell quickly
vanishes and the VESDA level reading diminishes to zero. The
site appears safe so we clean up and get back to bed a few hours
later. Of course no-one gets back to sleep, so the Saturday
workday feels agonising. Molly the electrician draws a blank on
the cause of the alarm so I suggested running both generators to
check for issues as as it's entirely possible that it's related.
He ignores my advice and everyone struggles through the last day
of the work week with the thought that Sunday morning will yield a
much deserving sleep in.
But it wasn't to be. Sometime before 7AM this morning I was
slapped in the face with Deja Vu. A carbon copy incident of Saturday
morning. This time we left the two generators running. Molly
disassembled as much of the live switchboard as safely possible
as I checked with the thermal imaging camera. Everything looked
normal. Then a sudden speck of red and yellow on the camera's
black and white 'normal' display. On closer inspection, a
large terminal on one of the three phases of the generator 1
main switch was glowing on the thermal camera, which reported
a temperature of over 100 degrees Celsius. The excess temperature
was causing the heat shrink tubing on cable to give off invisible
fumes and set off the VESDA. The three phase switch carries in
excess of 200A from the 180kW generator, so any high resistance
connection causes excess heat to dissipate.
And that's the story of how one bad connection kept us awake with fire
alarms over the past two mornings.
I don't have any photos of the fire incident. Not really practical
to take pictures while you're creating the action as opposed to
observing it. But this is the VESDA display, reading normal.
Unlike in the early hours of this morning. The unit essentially
uses a laser to check for impurities in the air, which is drawn
into a scanner unit by a series of tubes with small air holes in
specific sampling locations.
The power house main switchboard. The generator 1 main switch with
the elusive loose and hot terminal visible at the lower left.
That's more than enough about fire alarms. Time for something
totally unrelated. This is the light engineering workshop,
which is often very messy. I've given up trying to do any
metal work as it takes several days just to clear enough space
to use the drill press.
New technology meets old. One of my jobs during the week was
interfacing a new model Tait TM8110 UHF radio to the 1990s
technology Tait T735 VHF full duplex radio, set up as a low
current repeater. We have a number of such units, which form the
Dry Valleys VHF repeater network. Each mountain top radio repeater
is linked with a UHF linking radio. We've since used all the
spares to build another new site, so I've integrated a new model
UHF linking radio in place of one of the older Tait T754 UHF
radios. Visible at the bottom is an eight cavity duplexer,
which allows the VHF radio to transmit and receive simultaneously
through the same VHF antenna.
Last weekend Molly and a couple of others made the most of the
fading mid-day ambient light to ride up to Castle Rock.
2/5/2015: A few hours into the two-day
weekend and we've already had a search and rescue callout.
Ironically enough, most search and rescue callouts
tend to be a result of one of the search and rescue team
members being forgetful, and it was no different this
afternoon. Another case of missed hourly check-in when out
on a recreational walk and no response to radio calls. But
fortunately the 'missing' person called in just as the search
team was heading out the door. So a positive outcome, but
not a great way to spend your precious little time off work.
Work wise the week has been largely uneventful; mostly working
on technical documentation and small jobs that usually get put
off in favour of something more interesting.
It's been such an uneventful week that there are very few
interesting photographs to share. So it was time to run around
base with a camera to find anything that was happening. The
photo above is the small hydroponics garden in the dining room.
Currently growing some lettuce and
On a long two-day weekend, the chef also has the day off, so
most people snack on leftover food from the fridge. Here's
Molly enjoying some Tiramisu cake left over from Becky's birthday
Lex (left) is working today in order to catch up on his large
workload of winter vehicle repairs and maintenance. Darryn
(right) points to a bolt hole on the final drive unit from the
Pisten Bully 300.
This is the Pisten Bully 300 currently in the workshop for a
number of repairs. For a vehicle that gets very occasional use
mainly in summer only, it certainly seems to need a lot of repair
work done. In this case, the NZ Army plant operators were driving
it on a traverse over summer when the park brake locked on.
Instead of finding why the brake had engaged, the decision was
made to keep driving it with the brake engaged, which unsurprisingly
caused a fair amount of damage.
The rear view of the PB300 with the rear right hand track drive
I took this photo last Sunday of the cloud formations above Mt
Erebus, highlighted by the mid-day sun just below the horizon.