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)
May 2016
  • 29/5/2016: So what have I got this week? Even less interesting subject matter than last week. Pretty much my entire work week has been focused on telemetry software development, which is pretty hard to make sound exciting. Back in 2011 I'd designed and implemented an entire radio telemetry network from nothing from a budget of virtually zero. When I think back to how much I'd achieved back then, it's still an incredible achievement. Even doing that kind of thing back home in NZ where you can easily get parts in no time whenever you like, it would still easily be six months or more of work, though I did all of the hardware design and build and wrote most of the software in barely two months' time plus wrote a huge amount of documentation on it all. The key to success was working some incredibly long hours; which I partially regret as you don't get paid anything extra for performing well beyond what you're contracted to do, you don't get paid for working overtime and there's rarely even a word of thanks. Another role in the success of the rapid development was reducing software features to the basic minimum. For example, a configuration database needed to be viewed and edited using a spreadsheet application - which was certainly functional, just not overly user friendly. So I'm spending 'spare' time now implementing more user friendliness into the telemetry software to make it a little more flexible and easier to use, plus adding a number of new features I didn't have time to do back when I completed the original development.

    Meanwhile at Scott Base, I'm certainly not the only one with much apparently 'spare' time until the June flight in under two weeks. Half of the engineering team are currently spending a good portion of the day bulk manufacturing hip flasks out of copper. Personally I feel it would be better use of time and money to be doing something that benefits the NZ Antarctic programme in some way, but hey, that's only my view.

    On a different note, the NZ Government announced (see point 10) this week that the NZ Antarctic programme will receive an additional NZ$16.7 million funding over the next four years, with which they're planning to essentially expand/rebuild Scott Base and increase deep field work. I'm still undecided if that's a good thing or not. Throwing more money at something such as that doesn't necessarily mean you'll get any more or 'better' science output, but it undoubtedly guarantees an increased level of human impact upon the environment, more non-renewable fuel used, etc.

    Power_store_IO_module.jpg (144833 bytes)
    An annoyingly regular part of what's not in my contract but what I seem to spend much time on is maintaining the wind farm/power network data control system. It's surprisingly complicated and involves a lot of proprietary hardware and software, for which we have no documentation on. There's no one item that keeps breaking, it's more the fact that there are hundreds of separate pieces of equipment, and if one these stops working for any reason, it can cause many other things to stop working. One example from the week is one of the proprietary Ethernet input-output modules, (pictured above, right of centre) it just stopped working correctly one day, causing one of the Scott Base generators to misbehave. As is a too often problem with modern technology these days, there's no easy way of being able to figure out what happened, so you have to switch it off then back on and wait for several months or more for it to inevitably do the same thing again.

    Ursula-ArrivalHeights-2AM.jpg (153670 bytes)
    Ursula took this photo in total darkness at 2AM while driving back from Arrival Heights during the week. The camera's long exposure makes it appear as though we have sunlight, which of course we don't at this time of the year.

    Hangar_aurora_small.jpg (67622 bytes)
    Anthony Powell's favourite things to photograph are auroras, though personally I enjoy his recent underwater videos of fish around the Reverse Osmosis intake hole in the sea ice. A few of us were watching a particularly bad movie after work last night and someone mentioned that "there were some exceptionally good auroras tonight". We looked at each other in silence and continued watching the F grade film. In case anyone has any more enthusiasm about auroras than I do (i.e. none) here's a recent panorama from Anthony Powell; the Scott Base hangar in the centre and the bulk fuel storage tank to the left. Click on the photo above to see the lager version.

  • 22/5/2016: Although I might not have many interesting details from during the work week, at least the social scene at McMurdo Station has been lively. Essentially when any event happens outside of work, it's all run by people in their own time, which is partly why I was so surprised to see so much happening. Wednesday featured the Science Fair - which was a mock (or semi-serious) high school style fair with some good humoured topics. The Repurposing Competition on Friday featured entries made out of recycled items from the waste stream with prizes for most inventive and most useful. Followed by a live music show last night. I must admit, with all this interesting stuff happening, I'm finding myself much less annoyed than I usually am at this time in the year.

    Colin_liquid_nitrogen.jpg (96647 bytes)
    Colin mixing liquid nitrogen fruit sorbet at the McMurdo Science Fair.

    Why_is_Ben_Affleck_sad.jpg (107976 bytes)
    A scientific "study" on why Ben Affleck appears to be so sad in all of his movies.

    Mark_sauna.jpg (136798 bytes)
    Mark and a few others made this presentation on a sauna temperature study. I don't think they quite knew exactly what they were trying to show, but they made a good job of it.

    Grubb_carpet.jpg (101561 bytes)
    Meanwhile at Scott Base, Grubb the carpenter has finally finished the carpet on the linkway floor that has been bare plywood for nearly a year because after they ripped up the old carpet last year, they didn't realise there wasn't any new carpet to replace it.

    USAP_bulldozer_BigJohn.jpg (67961 bytes)
    Someone found this ancient photo of one of the American bulldozers that fell through a crack in the sea ice many years ago. I think they eventually recovered it, though by then it had been under water for a while.

    Staff_photo_Nightwatch.jpg (122459 bytes)
    Another Scott Base staff photo - this one is a re-creation of the Rembrandt painting, The Night Watch. I'm pictured far right.

  • 15/5/2016: It's been a week of things breaking. First was the University of Canterbury's Ionosonde, which has been in operation since 1958. It was making loud whip cracking noises which turned out to be high voltage arcing inside the valve based transmitter. Then there was the wind farm data system, which was of little surprise - the wind farm in general is usually in one of two states, it's either broken or about to break.

    This week also saw the last of the official twilight in the middle of the day. There's still enough light around mid-day to easily walk around outside, but even that is fading daily. The annual return to permanent darkness is having the usual effects of people getting unusually tired and cranky. I've been through this three times before, though even this week I've found it difficult to remain motivated. A simple job of designing and building a radio data interface took the best part of a day, where you'd normally knock it off in a couple of hours.

    Ionosonde_working.jpg (116429 bytes)
    This is the University of Canterbury's Ionosonde when it's working. Operating at Scott Base since 1958, it performs a radio transmitter sweep from 2 to 16MHz every 15 minutes and records the height of the radio frequency reflection from the ionosphere, which is used for HF radio propagation measurements and predictions. The output of the instrument, known as an Ionogram, can be viewed online here, select Scott Base as the station.

    Ionosonde_capacitor.jpg (94357 bytes)
    This was the capacitor inside the Ionosonde transmitter that had exploded and was causing high voltage arcing. This is part of the transmitter power supply circuit which generates +1500V, +100V and -100V to drive the four EL360 output valves.

    Ionosonde_transmitter.jpg (134230 bytes)
    The transmitter module for the Ionosonde with the RF driver stage in the top left corner, the four EL360 output valves under the cover top right and the transmitter power supply at the bottom. The transmitter delivers high intensity short duration (40uSec) pulses of radio energy at about 5kW, though the average output power is relatively low, about 1 Watt.

    Becky_ice_crack_profiling.jpg (100376 bytes)
    Becky using an ice auger to profile the thickness of the sea ice to see if it's safe to cross with a vehicle. The ice thickness of the new ice is about 840mm (0.8 metre) at present, meaning it's above the minimum thickness of 700mm required for vehicle travel.

    Ice_pier_construction.jpg (88662 bytes)
    The Americans continue to build their new ice pier for the container and fuel supply ships to dock at in January. They aim for the floating ice pier to last around five years, but they've not been so fortunate in recent times with the piers disintegrating and require a new one to be made every year or two. The pier is formed by building a moat of snow and pumping around 75mm of sea water into it so that it freezes, then once it's frozen repeat the process until it's at least five metres thick.

  • 7/5/2016: We had our first "Condition 1" storm of the season last night, which was fairly short lived, but eventful for the first-timers who hadn't seen much wild weather here before. We have a simple weather grading system where the lower the number reflects the harsher wind speed, lower visibility and lower temperatures/windchills. Loosely translated, the three grades are:

    • Condition 3 = normal/good weather
    • Condition 2 = you'll probably get killed
    • Condition 1 = you'll definitely be killed

    The winds gusting to 85 knots (160km/hr) only lasted a few hours last night and I don't think there's been any damage. It's certainly nothing out of the ordinary to have these sorts of weather conditions.

    Antz-SB_flyover_3-5-16.jpg (105240 bytes)
    We've barely got any light left following the last sunset two weeks ago, so photographer Anthony Powell has been making the most of the last of the fading mid-day light. This is a fly-over photo from his quad-copter mounted camera from during the week.

    Black_light_party.jpg (125917 bytes)
    The black (UV) light party last Saturday night was an interesting theme for a change. We found enough UV lights to illuminate an area of the bar and made a variety of fluorescent coloured decorations. The American guests especially enjoyed it.

    More_messy_wiring.jpg (117511 bytes)
    After working here over the past six years I thought I'd got to the bottom of all the messy cabling concealed around the place. Obviously not. Usually the messy wiring was obvious, because things simply didn't work. This is one of the rare examples of something that's been crafted with the minimum of effort, but somehow it still works. It's on the list for next week to deal with.

    Grubb_Aussie_flag.jpg (115200 bytes)
    Grubb the carpenter, proudly displaying his Australian flag.

  • 1/5/2016: Since I've completed the "year" of annual maintenance work in two months and due to the cancellation of the NZ Air Force cargo flight last month, I've had to postpone a number of repair, enhancement and project work until we get a cargo flight. Since I wasn't here for most of the summer, I hadn't come up with project details of what I'm going to do this winter, so I'm doing that now. The thing is that this position essentially has three to four managers, and I can only assume that each manager expects that the other managers send me a list of what they want done. Which is not often the situation, in fact I rarely hear from any of them. Which isn't a bad thing at all, it just means I have the flexibility to make my own work schedule.

    So at present I'm tackling the 20-year old issue of the lack of radio paging coverage inside Scott Base. People are often surprised that we use pagers here, though it's not really surprising when you look at what options are available to rapidly contact a large number of people over a wide area. We have no cellular phone network here (thankfully!), so paging is a logical choice. It works well aside from the fact that Scott Base buildings are constructed from freezer panel - which is two sheets of light gauge steel with expanded polystyrene foam in between for thermal insulation. Unfortunately the double steel wall creates a perfect shield for radio signals, meaning depending where you are inside Scott Base, you may or may not receive an important emergency callout message. There is no simple solution which magically fixes everything without creating other problems, but I'm working on it.

    Paging_coverage.jpg (57433 bytes)
    A simplified example of the radio paging network expansion coverage as part of the project proposal I'm currently working on to address long term paging coverage issues inside Scott Base.

    Don't_stop_believin.jpg (118945 bytes)
    There are two traffic stop signs at McMurdo Station. One is an unofficial public graffiti area and is completely covered in random stickers. The other says "Don't Stop Believin", which of course is a reference to the song by the American band, Journey.

    Carp_shop_BBQ_in_snow.jpg (158174 bytes)
    The barbeque on the deck outside the McMurdo Carpenters' Workshop. How would you like your steak done? Extra frozen, thanks.

    IDE_to_Cape_Adare.jpg (184133 bytes)
    I'm kind of lacking interesting photos this week, so rather than scratching the bottom of the barrel, or getting my camera out, it's a good time to look at the shared photos from over summer. This one is Southern Lakes Helicopters Squirrel B3 machine "IDE" on the way to a summer project at Cape Adare.

    BorchgrevinkHut-CapeAdare.jpg (310073 bytes)
    And what's at Cape Adare that makes it worth the logistically difficult trip of 750km or so? It's the restoration of Borchgrevink's historic hut, of course. No, I didn't just mash the keyboard to invent a fake name. Read about it here. This is a photo taken from this past summer by the conservation team working on it.