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

Anthony-ScottBase-small.jpg (10124 bytes)
May 2015
  • 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 diminishes.

    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 steam ahead!"

    Scary_guy_outside.jpg (90284 bytes)
    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 room window.

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    As usual, there had to be yet another group photo. Fortunately I managed to avoid this as well.

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    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 1080 airdrop.....

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    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 course.

    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....

    Administration_linkway.jpg (94833 bytes)
    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 shown above.

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    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.

    Mollys_fat_bike.jpg (145281 bytes)
    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.

    Erebus_crater_23-1-15.jpg (207805 bytes)
    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.

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    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.

    Katrina_Airbus.jpg (74735 bytes)
    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

    Powerhouse_VESDA.jpg (64328 bytes)
    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.

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    The power house main switchboard. The generator 1 main switch with the elusive loose and hot terminal visible at the lower left.

    Stage6_workshop.jpg (138380 bytes)
    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.

    TM8110_T735.jpg (130153 bytes)
    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.

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    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.

    Hydroponics_2-5-15.jpg (161215 bytes)
    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 nasturtium.

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    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 last night.

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    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.

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    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.

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    The rear view of the PB300 with the rear right hand track drive removed.

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    I took this photo last Sunday of the cloud formations above Mt Erebus, highlighted by the mid-day sun just below the horizon.