Amiga Technical Resource

Working in Antarctica

On the 30th of August 2010 I began a new role of telecommunications technician for Scott Base, Antarctica NZ, Telecom NZ and Downer Engineering. It began with a tightly packed four weeks of a variety of training before flying south to the ice on the 30th of September. The contract length of the position is around 13 months, hence it is known as 'wintering over'.

Below is a blog 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 2012-2013, 2014-2015 and 2016 seasons are also available.

Select month to view:
October 2010 November 2010 December 2010 January 2011 February 2011 March 2011 April 2011 May 2011 June 2011 July 2011 August 2011 September 2011 October 2011

Anthony-ScottBase-small.jpg (10124 bytes)
January 2011
  • 29/11/10: I happened to meet some Americans from NASA and Essco (who make the large golf ball shaped radomes that protect satellite antennas) who are undertaking a project that involves lifting the 10 metre diameter antenna out of the radome to replace parts. Essentially the top of the radome gets lifted off and the antenna lifted out using a large crane. Things are still in the planning and preparation stage. The Essco people gave me a few good maintenance and repair tips for the radomes; our NZ radome is made by them as well. In exchange, I gave them some help with their prep work. At this stage they're waiting for a windless day to do the lifting work. This is a problem as windless days are few and far between here. They're now at the point where some of the staff are due to return home, so they'll have to try and extend the stays of certain project staff and/or get extra help.

    IceAirport.jpg (31844 bytes)
    A completely unrelated picture of the ice runway/airport outside McMurdo Station, viewed from the NASA radome. All of the buildings and infrastructure are due to be pulled in to move to another airport site, as during the summer the sea ice becomes too thin (less than approx. 2 metres) for airport operations. If left there, the buildings would eventually fall through the ice and into the sea.

    NASA_dome1.jpg (40063 bytes)
    Here is the radome prior to the lifting work. The crane has just been set up, plus much other site work has been going on including the building of stairs up to the radome. Apparently much of this ground work was completed by the NZ Army people who were here during October.

    NASA_dome2.jpg (73052 bytes)
    In the picture above, the edge of the white radome can be seen in the left hand side, the crane is just behind it. These are some of the Americans working on the project.

    NASA_dome3.jpg (91686 bytes)
    Another picture looking over the NASA worksite. One good arrangement between the US and NZ Antarctic programmes is that the colour helps to define who owns what. The American clothing and vehicles are red. Our NZ clothing is orange and black, while all of our buildings are "Chelsea Cucumber Green". Our vehicles are random colours, while all of the Americans' buildings are random colours. It helps a little bit.

  • 21/11/10: Another Sunday rolls by. Following the skirt party last night there were of course many tales to spin of evening events. My official day off, so time for doing laundry and a few miscellaneous chores. I'm finding as that as I get more and more involved with things both inside and outside of work (running the FM radio station, social club events, etc) that there's less large of blocks time available to sit down and write Emails and letters, sort photos and write this stuff for the website. So while half of the base was still sleeping in from last night, I managed to spend some time writing this long overdue web update. Three weeks of memorabilia in one afternoon; I was struggling to remember what I'd been doing as all the days just seem to blur into one big mass of events. Here's some completely random pictures taken by people in our group who are obviously much better at photography than I am.

    SeaIce.jpg (45243 bytes)
    The sun shining through sea ice ridges out the front of Scott Base.

    Penguins.jpg (86176 bytes)
    A few people have been asking for a picture of some penguins. This one was taken during a recent visit to Cape Royds.

    SealPup.jpg (81407 bytes)
    Photo of a seal pup and it's mother. A few of the people around here appear to own more expensive cameras than I've had complaints about playing inappropriate material on the radio. And that's been quite a few, and counting! There are some days where I love this job.

  • 20/11/10: Day of the annual Scott Base skirt party tradition. I'd been long dreading this enevitable display of transvestitness (is that actually a word or not?) which clearly shows that some men take the joke of wearing women's clothing much too seriously.

    I had been nominated the DJ/sound guy but sadly that didn't mean I was immune to the cross-dress fest. Still, once I'd consumed a considerable number of beers it didn't seem quite so bad; I actually began to enjoy the music, company, dancing and atmosphere. In summary it all went off incredibly well and was enjoyed even by the skirt-toting American visitors from McMurdo. As always with this kind of event there were bound to be a few quirky issues.

    Anthony-SkirtParty.jpg (22216 bytes)
    Damn, that's one hot bitch! Oh wait, that's actually me. I did say that I wasn't going to publish any photos of me doing anything stupid or embarrassing on the internet, but this is an obvious exception. No, that dress is not one of my lacey numbers; there is a large room here at Scott Base which is dedicated to fancy dress clothing and other party props. In my first, and hopefully last night in a dress, I was left puzzled what to do with money and the likes; I did not know that dresses do not have pockets. Probably solves the mystery of why women have handbags, but pockets just seem much more practical and convenient.

    Jugen-SkirtParty.jpg (43845 bytes)
    Another example of some people taking the skirt party far too seriously!

  • 14/11/10: Since most of the urgent work requiring 18-hour working days have subsided, I finally had a real Sunday off. I joined a small familiarisation trip heading for an ice cave in the Erebus Ice Tongue, which is a river of ice (glacier) that flows from the side of Mt Erebus into the sea ice. At this point there are cracks that form in the giant protrusion of ice and one of these cracks is easily accessible and big enough to walk in. Following an hour's easy Hagglund ride from Scott Base, it was cave time. Unlike crappy old historic buildings, I enjoy caves.

    IceCave1.jpg (55399 bytes)
    The cave is only around 10 metres deep. The entrance greets you with a brilliant display of delicate ice crystal formations that transform into two slick walls of solid ice that taper off in a wedge-like shape. The photo above is taken from the narrowest accessible point of the taper, looking out to the mouth of the cave. Plus I seem to be getting my photo taken at the same time.

    IceCave2.jpg (33986 bytes)
    This is looking upwards at the cave entrance. The cave mouth is lined with these delicate crystal structures.

    IceCave3.jpg (50868 bytes)
    A macro shot of some of the intricate ice formations, this one is around 10-20mm in size. It's actually slightly more impressive if you're actually sitting in the cave surrounded by these as opposed to sitting there looking at them on a badly written web page. No, really.

    SealHole.jpg (39348 bytes)
    After the ice cave, we visited a nearby site where a science event had recently departed from. Aside from a lot of scratched up snow and ice, you'd never know they'd been there. A hole had been cut in the ice to measure tide flow and now that the hole had been abandonded by the scientists, there were around ten seals using the hole has a gateway between the surface of the ice and the ocean underneath. The seal seen above had just swam up out of the hole to sun itself on the ice.

  • 13/11/10: Called into the McMurdo underwater observation tube after work today. It's essentially a 700mm diameter piece of steel pipe stuck through the sea ice that has windows around the bottom section. You climb about 3 metres down the narrow tube after which you can sit there gazing at the ocean under the ice. There's actually not a lot to see, but there is a surprising amount of fish life about, mostly very small fish only a few centimeters long. I hope you're noticing the absence of any puns about fat Americans not being physically able to fit into a 700mm tube, I'm actually trying really hard to write this in a semi-serious way.

    ObservationTube.jpg (38641 bytes)
    Here's the view looking out of the observation tube window. You can't see any fish in this photo, although the underside of the two metre thick sea ice has an interesting crystalline appearance. The green/brown tinge at the top of the photo is a thin layer of alge that grows on the underside of the ice.

  • 12/11/10: Today the air temperature reached 0 degrees Celcius for the first time this season, Summer is certainly knocking on the door. At present the daily temperatures range from around -15 to 0 degrees C, plus this month we've seen mostly low-wind and sunny days. It's very enjoyable working outside in the sun; shorts and T-shirt are fine much of the time, though for some reason I'm the only one who seems to do this.

    D4DozerStuck.jpg (67804 bytes)
    The plant operators were clearing some snow on the sea ice at the front of Scott Base to drill a hole for some ocean science work, when they were having doubts that the bulldozer might get stuck. The boss jumped in to show them how to do it, then promptly got it stuck in the snow! There was a round of free beers on the table that night.

  • 8/11/10: Another Monday, the start of another working week. Managed to hitch a ride to Hoopers Shoulder on Mt Erebus to remedy a few issues; fix the solar regulation, reprogram the telemetry modem and conduct a quick rigging inspection of the tower and antennas. As it costs in the order of NZ$4000 per hour to fly helicopters here, it was convenient to tag along with an American trip who were working at another site on Mt Erebus. I needed around 30-40 minutes of ground time to complete what I had to do, so the American pilots agreed to drop me off and come back after they'd dealt to the main group some time later. Turns out they were quicker than they had expected and the helicopter was back at the NZ radio site in 10 minutes and impatiently wanting to leave. Not really possible as I had things in pieces, so had to work incredibly quickly. Wires and radio bits flying in all directions. To make matters worse, the Americans insist you fly in full ECW (extreme cold weather) survival clothing, while that day we had a swealtering -10 degrees Celcius on Erebus. Due to my hasty work, things were getting overwhelmingly hot, I don't think I've sweated so much in my life. On the plus side, I did manage to get everything on the list ticked off and working.

    ErebusFlight2.jpg (79068 bytes)
    Yet another picture of one of the American helicopters. In my haste on top of Mt Erebus, taking scenic photos was the last thing on my mind, so this one is from the ground after we returned to Scott Base.

    BaslerBT-67.jpg (54006 bytes)
    A completely unrelated photo of a Basler BT-67 aircraft at the ice runway. These aircraft have a range of around 3400km so are often used to deliver people and supplies to deep field events, including to the South Pole.

  • 7/11/10: There are many different science events who visit Scott Base every year who study everything from dust on the ice to atmospheric research on the ozone hole. Each event generally has between 2 and 20 staff; some events rarely leave Scott Base while others spend most of their time living and working out in the field for several weeks or more at a time. One science event based here at Scott Base are studying the anti-freeze in the blood of Antarctic marine life. The science people are deeply passionate about their work as you'd expect and are only too happy to discuss their research in great detail. Below are some of the photos I took from the Scott Base 'wet lab' for studying live creatures.

    SeaLife.jpg (62474 bytes)
    A variety of small Antarctic fish, most under 10cm long. My brain was shutting down at the point the scientists were listing the scientific names for the many different species so can't quote what any of these are called.

    TobyTheToothfish2.jpg (47284 bytes)
    This is Toby, a 1.2 metre long, 40kg, half-grown Antarctic toothfish. He doesn't look too happy being wedged into that plastic tub and alas was sacrificed in the name of science a week later. Pity, I'm sure he'd have made a fantastic fish 'n' chips dinner.

    TobyTheToothfish1.jpg (66041 bytes)
    And a view of Toby's teeth. Can't remember what they said it is that toothfish normally eat, though I'm guessing it'll probably be a mixture of other fish and small children. Dingoes stealing human babies is an issue in Australia and I certainly haven't seen any babies at all in Antarctica. Logic dictates that the toothfish eat them all. Why let the truth stand in the way of a good rumor?

    Anthony-CraterHill.jpg (70783 bytes)
    That evening after being scared away from Scott Base at the thought of being devoured by Toby or sacrificed in the name of science myself, I took a stroll to the top of Crater Hill, behind Scott Base, to do a job on our radio site. The radio site behind me in the picture above is one of the American base stations for remote telephone and wireless internet, with a view of Mt Erebus in the background. As the American Antarctic programme is around ten times bigger than New Zealand's, it makes sense that they have around ten times more radio equipment scattered around the place. Most of it varies between untidy and worse, to the point where one look and you want to douse yourself in petrol and set it on fire. The NZ radio gear is somewhat better and as it's mostly all Tait equipment, I'm well familiar with it.

  • 1/11/10: Saturday the 30th of October was Halloween night at McMurdo base. It's an American tradition which they use as an excuse to dress up as monsters or any other random fancy dress to have a general piss-up. It's not such a big thing in New Zealand, although Scott Base received an invite for anyone who wanted to partake in the McMurdo Halloween party. In all honesty, I can only just handle two or three Americans when they're not drunk; but several hundred very intoxicated Americans all crammed into one very small building is not really my scene of choice. I stayed at Scott Base with most of the others and enjoyed the All Blacks vs. Wallabies rugby game, live off the satellite.

    Halloween_night.jpg (80025 bytes)
    Some of the Scott Base participants at the McMurdo Halloween night party. The guy on the far right in the cow suit is Lance, one of our two chefs. We're told the milk here at Scott Base tastes funny because it's "powdered milk", although I think I've uncovered the real truth.

    Icebergs.jpg (41087 bytes)
    Here's a picture of an iceberg taken by one of our group on a sea ice trip. The crack in the bottom left hand corner is between the main mass of iceberg and the sea ice sheet surrounding it. Hard to believe that this huge mass of ice is simply floating in the ocean as though it was a cork in a bucket of water. The sea ice is greater than 250 metres thick in places, so plenty strong enough to drive a Hagglund over or land a C17 aircraft on. Hagglunds need 700mm (0.7m) minimum ice thickness for safe travel on the ice. Over the next couple of months the sea ice develops more cracks and begins to break up, so longer distances will need to be travelled by helicopter as opposed to Hagglund.