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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November 2012
  • 25/11/12: Spent a majority of the week doing five-minute jobs that turn into three-day jobs. You know the ones, where someone asks you to do something quick and easy such as running a couple of new cables. Then when you get into the job, you find a big mess of wires that desperately needs a tidy up. And another big bunch of wires that doesn't seem to do anything and no-one seems to know about and also aren't documented anywhere. So you end up spending days just sorting it all out.

    But that's OK. We have a few interesting (in a good way) visitors at Scott base at present. We have Mark Binns, the CEO from Meridian Energy NZ. They own the Ross Island wind farm. Due to the great success of the wind farm, the Americans are keen to have more wind generators installed, so Mark has been having meetings with them to try and put together a few longer term plans.

    We're also lucky enough to have Don McGlashan here as part of the invited artists programme. He's been the front man behind NZ bands such as The Muttonbirds, Blam Blam Blam, The Front Lawn and more recently, The Bellbirds.

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    I repaired a problem with Don's guitar pickup before he was due to perform at McMurdo Station. He's also putting on a small concert for us in the Scott Base bar tomorrow evening.

    Skiing_from_SB.jpg (157945 bytes)
    Many people have been getting out recently to enjoy the blue skies and warm temperatures. We've had a number of daily highs of 0 degrees C this week.

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    The Americans have set up their fuel line from the 2 million gallon fuel storage tanks over the sea ice to the airfield. There are a number of road crossings for vehicles to cross over the line without damaging it and creating an environmental disaster. The sign above is of the Kiwi fuel crossing close to Scott Base. Some of the Americans have a good sense of humour.

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    A few of our base staff were out at Cape Bird recently at the northern tip of Ross Island to open the small accommodation building there for summer science event staff. Thanks to Joe K for these photos.

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    There have also been regular Sunday trips to the historic huts which have been popular with base staff and visitors alike. The huts are preserved in the condition of how they were left by Captains Scott and Shackleton. The photo above is of a table in Scott's hut. What's for dinner tonight Captain? Why it's penguin surprise of course!

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    Another photo from the large adelie penguin colony at Cape Bird. Look away kiddies, I've got some bad news about Happy Feet...

  • 18/11/12: I'm sitting here trying to recall what I've done all week. It's been quite a bit, but one of those weeks where of the days blur into each other. There was something about chasing a whole heap of radio frequency interference issues, both with our network, plus I was helping the Americans with similar issues on their side of things. The problem is that no-one seems to be looking after radio frequency allocations since the new USAP contractor, Lockheed Martin, have allegedly made staff cut backs. The radio frequency allocations here were usually quite ad-hoc and poorly planned, but at least there was some degree of management. Now it seems to be radio spectrum open season and there are hundreds of new scientists down here (mainly with the American program) who have all sorts of things transmitting over all sorts of frequencies at random. So unsurprisingly, this has created many headaches for 2-way radio networks. Oh well, keeps me busy (or busier) I guess.

    On the plus side, the welcome summer season is blessing us with mostly blue sky sunny days and warm temperatures. It got up to -6C during the week and I've not seen it drop below -20C for quite some time. Many of the dirt roads are beginning to thaw of surface ice and there is already a lot of water pooling. Won't be long before most of the ground ice melts, leaving us with rivers of water and mud for a month or so, then it gets dry and dusty.

    Our communications operators publish a regular in-house magazine which is filled mostly with tongue-in-cheek humour, photo competitions and snippets of information. They've been running short of content, so someone suggested that I submit one of my ranty Emails. I dug out one I'd written a year ago and they seemed happy enough. It's on page 2 of the magazine if anyone is keen for a read.

    PistenBully100.jpg (187402 bytes)
    Why not start with a nice scenery shot of a Pisten Bully 100 on one of the sea ice roads on the ice shelf not far from Scott Base.

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    The Americans kindly ran an airport open day for McMurdo and Scott Base people. You could fully explore the planes inside and out, the whole day was well received. The photo here is of a C-17 Globemaster, the main workhorse between Christchurch and McMurdo airport. Thanks to Ray C for these aircraft photos.

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    The United States Antarctic Program (USAP) own several of these C-130 Hercules fitted with skis. It has the ability to transport large amounts of cargo and land on soft snow.

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    A Basler BT-67 aircraft, which are built from a retrofitted DC-3 airframe. They are used to transport up to 6 tonnes of cargo large distances, up to 3400km. Enough to fly from McMurdo Station to the South Pole and back without refuelling. They're owned by Kenn Borek air and are flown in each season from Canada.

  • 11/11/12: On the social side of things, it's been a fairly fun week. Strangely enough, the Melbourne Cup annual horse race is yet another of those events where everyone breaks out into costumes. We held a race horse sweepstake as I'm sure nearly every workplace around NZ and Australia does. We have a small group of scientists from Belgium on station who decided to treat the whole base to a Belgian food evening; they took over the kitchen to prepare an appealing range of their speciality dishes. Then on Saturday night at the end of the working week, we had a bar-be-que outside the vehicle workshop. It was delicious, but you had to drink the beer quickly before it froze in your hand.

    Aside from that, work has been busy without being hectic. Quite a welcome change from this time in 2010. Everything including fixing two-way radio installations in Hagglunds, repairing GPS units, providing training on how to use HF radio and RADAR, issuing field communications equipment to science events deploying to the field and repairing photospectrometers and other scientific instruments. All part of a regular day's jobs.

    Many of the Scott Base staff are participating in Movember, the idea of growing a moustache over November in order to raise money for a cancer research charity. Unfortunately my previous efforts consist of this embarrassing bum fluff crossed with wannabe Hitler kind of thing. Doesn't really work.

    Today (Sunday) is Veterans Day/Remembrance Day where the many local New Zealand and American armed forces gather in a ceremony to reflect on their comrades who have died in the line of duty. This memorial is held annually since the end of World War 1 on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. I'm sure that those many fallen war heroes would have appreciated the punctual binary-like nature of this time and date. There sure are a lot of ones in this specific time of commemoration. Though as we all know, decimal 11 is 1011 in binary or 0x0B in hexadecimal. It shows that I've been writing computer software for far too long. It's also that time of year where all of our communications operators, who are from the NZ Armed Forces, attend the ceremony at McMurdo Station. So I'm filling in for their job of answering the phone and radio plus calling out Search 'n' Rescue when people aren't back by their sign-in times. In general it's quite a boring job, hence I'm passing the time by sitting here typing countless pages of pure waffle.

    Chelsea-Penguins.jpg (143924 bytes)
    I've received a few requests for more photos of penguins, so here's one taken last week by Chelsea on a recent trip somewhere over the sea ice.

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    However, while penguins are annoying and lack intelligence [Fact: there was a scientific study that concluded that penguins may be as intelligent as some humans, although I've seen first hand that lumps of ice can also be as intelligent as some humans]; I do love the many landscapes such as this view from Castle Rock, photo by Richie H.

    Belgium_dinner_night.jpg (221440 bytes)
    The Belgium scientists made a great job of preparing some of their many national speciality dishes. This formal dining began with an appetiser of creamed tuna fish and mayonnaise topped with peaches. Definitely an interesting combination.

    Melbourne_Cup_SB_bar.jpg (253274 bytes)
    After the delicious Belgium dinner was consumed, it was straight to the Scott Base bar to view the Melbourne Cup horse race and see who won the sweepstake. As always, my random selection was only a second rate race horse, but the first to be loaded into the pet food factory truck.

    Fish_treadmill.jpg (128158 bytes)
    While doing a job in one of our wet labs, the scientists were keen to show me the many fish experiments they had running. This one is the fish treadmill where they can control the temperature and flow of water to measure the effects on the fish.

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    We also have a science event who are diving into the ocean below the sea ice to collect samples. They melt a hole through the sea ice, 1-2m thick, and then place a small portable hut over the hole that has a hatch in the floor. It's very common for Weddell seals to emerge from these dive holes for air.

  • 04/11/12: Following the installation of the last few radio repeater sites for the summer, the workload has now eased to a more manageable level. A few of the larger science events deployed into the field this week, relieving pressure on many of the other engineering staff. The ever expanding to-do list is still somewhat on the chunky side; there's never a shortage of things to be done.

    At least we had great weather for the installation work of the three Dry Valleys radio sites this week. Couldn't have gone smoother with everything going right first time, plus we got to see a few nice sites on the way from the helicopter and various mountain tops.

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    The approach to Mt Newall from the air. Our Antarctica NZ site is the small green building on the right hand side. The large white building in the centre belongs to the Americans. There is a wind generator on the tall tower for the American's equipment, although the large diameter shaft had broken off in the high winds over winter, which is why you may notice that the blades are missing.

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    The eastward view from the helicopter window down one of the many valleys on the Antarctica mainland, approximately 80km from Scott Base across McMurdo Sound.

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    Time to deal to a few loose antennas on top of the tower at Mt Cerberus.

    MarblePoint_31-10-12.jpg (135853 bytes)
    We stopped off at the American's refuelling depot at Marble Point on the way back home. Was a nice day, so made the most of the sunshine and warm temperatures. Their chief engineer gave me a personal tour of their small base which is permanently manned during the summer.

    B15_iceberg_remainder.jpg (125199 bytes)
    Flying home from Marble Point, we spotted a large iceberg trapped in the McMurdo Sound sea ice. The helicopter pilot gave us a quick flying tour of the berg and explained it was a remainder of the giant B15 iceberg; the worlds largest recorded iceberg which broke away from the Ross Ice Shelf in March 2000.

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    Mt Erebus with the helicopter leaving the Scott Base helicopter pad (foreground).

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    The Americans have a surplus microwave antenna radome that looks surprisingly similar to the Amiga boing ball logo. I could make the worlds best most southern Amiga themed giant bowling alley.

    Damian-PorkCrackle.jpg (144534 bytes)
    Our chef Damian just makes the best food! In the photo above he's demonstrating the tantalisingly delicious wonders of pork crackle.