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

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November 2014
  • 30/11/2014: The fourth Thursday in each November is Thanksgiving Day for the Americans. While this is usually of little interest to people in New Zealand, it turns out that Scott Base gets quite involved because we have a station full of a thousand Americans just down the road. As I understand it, the two really big events in America are Thanksgiving and Independence Day on the 4th of July. So Thanksgiving is marked by turkey dinners (or dinner with turkeys, depending who happens to be at the table) to which we were all invited. They generally do these things on a Saturday evening so as not to disrupt the working week, so last night most of Scott Base went across to feast at McMurdo. However, extremely busy mass dining halls are generally not my favourite places to be, so I stayed home and had some of the truly delicious pizza made by Tracy the chef for the small group of us who desired a less boisterous evening.

    In true McMurdo style, there was also a large scale after party; it's the time of year they do Freezing Man, a play on the popular Burning Man outdoor festival held annually in America. This McMurdo party was an indoor dance party. I dislike dancing even more than I dislike the majority of American food that primarily contains two ingredients: sugar and other. So I had an uninteresting but relaxing night instead, which is sometimes just what you need. Suited me just fine.

    Turkey_Trot_start.jpg (187690 bytes)
    Another part of the Thanksgiving Day festival at McMurdo is the annual Turkey Trot, which is a fun run around town. Since I'm paid to provide technical support and do radio communications stuff, I was doing that instead. But this is a photo of what is probably the start line outside the chapel at McMurdo. I should probably mention at this point that Americans take every opportunity to do some kind of fancy dress; hence there are a number of outrageous get-ups visible.

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    And this is probably the finishing point of the Turkey Trot fun run. I expect they will all be heading into the chapel to have a cup of tea with the vicar.

    Pressure_ridges_new_trail_Erebus.jpg (91520 bytes)
    Despite the near continuous veil of cloud that's been over us for the past two or three weeks, there is the odd day of sunshine. An ideal evening during the week to visit a new trail added to the pressure ridges. Mt Erebus in the background.

    Pressure_ridges_melt_pool2.jpg (84070 bytes)
    Of course the pressure ridges are just big chunks of ice floating on the open ocean. When the tide is high, it pushes up through cracks and forms these melt pools, visible here. There is a thin crust of ice around the edges, but the centre part is unfrozen sea water.

    Seal_and_skua.jpg (100132 bytes)
    My amateur wildlife photography of a Weddell Seal and an Antarctic Skua. All of these animals are looking particularly anxious with us walking past on the pressure ridge trail.

    H1_and_emperor_penguins.jpg (129513 bytes)
    Because I hadn't really taken any photos all week aside from a few pressure ridge ones and a few boring work photos, it's that time of the week to see what everyone else has added to the network drive for the taking. I mean sharing. This is the new (2013) Hagglund H1 and some Emperor Penguins. Probably taken during one of the regular Sunday outings to the historic huts at Cape Evans.

  • 23/11/2014: A steady week, not too many dramas and everyone appears to be getting over the various outbreaks of colds and norovirus that have been going around for the past few weeks. We were surprised on Tuesday when it was announced that two of our winter staff were leaving the following day as it was deemed they weren't a suitable fit for winter. Part of NZ employment contracts means that in the first 90 days if your employer doesn't find you suitable, then they aren't required to keep you on. It's a fairly gutsy decision to have to make, but I seriously do applaud Antarctica NZ management for being proactive about the winter community and they handled it all very professionally. Experience shows that it only takes one person not fitting in very well to cause a major disruption to the rest of the team.

    TimDyer_SB97FM.jpg (140103 bytes)
    So before Danny Watson and Radio NZ operations general manager, Tim Dyer, left on Monday, I also managed to get Tim a spot on my 9AM radio show, pictured right above, with me on the left; which he appeared to enjoy. In this photo, he's using his hand to cover up an LP shaped sign that someone made for me a few years ago that says "DJ Johnny Five". He's not doing a fascist salute, you neo-Nazi freaks. It felt a bit daunting to have a veteran of 30-something years radio host on my crappy wee made-up-on-the-spot radio show, often referred to many as the morning rant. Well it doesn't intentionally start out that way; I try to cover a spot of NZ national news which invariably ends up in some kind of rant about how stupid something is. But Tim seemed genuinely pleased with my efforts and we're currently in discussions about getting some new equipment to upgrade our radio station.

    Tug_of_war_SB_team.jpg (235733 bytes)
    Something that came out of the Scott Base woodwork this week was the Govener General's trophy. I wasn't aware of this, but the trophy was donated(?) in the early 1980s by Sir David Beattie, the 14th Governor General of NZ. It was last used as a prize for winning the annual Scott Base vs McMurdo tug-of-war competition, which appeared to be last held in 1983. Since the rugby is no more (see previous comment this month) they resurrected the tug-of-war. Despite featuring the word "war" in the title, it was significantly less violent than the rugby used to be.

    Tug_of_war_SB_team_trophy.jpg (244077 bytes)
    And the Scott Base team were victorious, the trophy stays with us. There are a number of rules for the competition, such as the total team weight needs to be 730kg or less, you're not allowed to use boot spikes, etc.

    McMurdo_B155_wet_road.jpg (161370 bytes)
    I took some random photos out of the truck window while on the way to do a job at Arrival Heights during the week. This is the galley building at McMurdo Station. We're at that point in the year where the sun is heating things up and all the ice on the road from winter is now melting into small rivers of flowing water everywhere.

    McMurdo_road_to_Arrival_Heights.jpg (161844 bytes)
    A problem with all these small rivers about at this time of the year is that they run together and make one big river. It's quite a task to clear the ice out of drainage ditches at the side of the roads to prevent the water from washing out various roads. Another issue is that all of the culvert pipes under the roads are all full of solid ice from the winter. They have heat trace cable permanently installed in the culverts, so the portable generator pictured lower right powers the heat trace which melts the ice in the pipe so that the water can flow through.

    Damaged_SES_to_AHL_cable.jpg (205652 bytes)
    One of the problems I went to look at; fault trace some broken cable pairs. This 25-pair telephone cable is surface laid on top of rocks. It creates too many environmental issues to bury long runs of cable, plus the fact that it's very difficult as the ground is permanently frozen. Over the years the wind over the ridge line where this cable runs has caused the cable to rub on the abrasive volcanic rock and it's started to erode away the copper pairs. There are about five areas of significant damage over a 20-metre section of cable, so this will require an overlay of a new cable section.

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    Couldn't help but take a token photo of Ivan parked at McMurdo. It's the big bus that the Americans use for transporting people to and from the air field.

    McMurdo_powerhouse_switchboard.jpg (121644 bytes)
    Some of my work this week was at the McMurdo power house, investigating some data communications issues with the Ross Island SCADA network. There are two separate power houses at McMurdo, next door to each other. They're separate in case anything bad happens to one of them, such as a fire. This photo is of the main switchboards and control cabinets in the main power house.

    McMurdo_generator.jpg (120974 bytes)
    This blurry photo through the control room window is of one of the three diesel powered generators, which are 1.2MW, 1.4MW and 1.4MW. McMurdo Station typically uses between 1.6MW and 2MW of electricity at any one time, so while the wind farm is running near its full capacity of 1MW, then McMurdo can easily get by with running one generator. The wind farm means about US$70,000 in fuel is saved per month.

  • 16/11/2014: Despite my expectations of it being a hectic week due to the abnormally large numbers of people coming through Scott Base, it turned out to be fairly low-key from my aspect. The mayor of Christchurch, Lianne Dalziel and her group was exclusively looked after by the CEO of Antarctica NZ. The group of 40-something visitors for the Erebus commemoration arrived on Friday afternoon, did their ceremony, then left without anyone really noticing their presence.

    We have a couple of folks from Radio NZ here at the moment too, namely NewsTalk ZB host Danny Watson (ex What Now host) and Tim Dyer, the Radio NZ operations general manager. It's been good fun having these guys about. In addition, Tim said that Radio NZ are keen to donate some new or used radio broadcast equipment to Scott Base. So that may mean an upgrade and expansion for our current Scott Base 97FM radio station, which I manage. At present the station consists of a small 20W transmitter which was built on site over 20 years ago, a small mixer and a computer running iTunes, which happens to be terrible for running a radio station on. Our coverage area is currently limited to line of sight from Scott Base, but depending on what equipment we might be lucky enough to receive, I'm hoping to set up a second transmitter on top of Crater Hill to provide better coverage to the Americans at McMurdo Station, plus expand coverage to the greater McMurdo Sound region. Something that people have been repeatedly asking for.

    Danny_Watson_SB97FM.jpg (173944 bytes)
    Danny Watson was producing his live talkback broadcasts from Scott Base this week. As part of this he interviewed a number of Scott Base staff, including myself. He had a day off yesterday, so I invited him as a special guest on my radio programme, which was a lot of fun.

    Danny_Watson_karate.jpg (107430 bytes)
    Another lesser known fact about Danny Watson is that he's also a Seido Karate instructor. It's not every day you look out the window and see someone in a black belt pulling some sweet karate moves in the snow.

    Snowflakes_in_hole.jpg (130236 bytes)
    On my Sunday hunt through the shared photos on the network, I came across this gem; it's a macro shot of some tiny snowflakes in a hole in some wood. I'm not sure of the science behind it, but there are certain conditions which cause snowflakes to form into these stereotypical star shapes. Apparently each snowflake is unique. No, I haven't verified this fact.

    Toothfish_wrestled_from_seal.jpg (144713 bytes)
    So we have several science events on station at present who are studying something to do with Antarctic Toothfish. They have a permit to catch a small number of fish to study, but unfortunately their fishing efforts to date had been coming up empty-handed. Someone looked out over the pressure ridges one night to see that a fat seal had caught one of these large fish and was munching away. So a bunch of these fish scientists went and wrestled away the seal's dinner, by which time the poor fish had no head left.

    Torpedo_thing.jpg (147867 bytes)
    This was another first; I walked into my workshop to find this big torpedo thing on the bench. Before I called the bomb squad, one of the scientists came in and he explained he wanted a broken wire re-soldered. So 20 seconds later the job was done. Another casualty-free job well done.

    Pressure_ridges_melt_pool.jpg (109812 bytes)
    I took the opportunity last Thursday night to take a stroll around the pressure ridges walk with a few work colleagues. A beautiful evening for it. This is one of the few melt pools, which we'll see more of as the temperature rises towards mid-summer.

    Kate-pressure_ridges.jpg (93564 bytes)
    The pressure ridges are formed when the sea ice presses against the land, and because the pressure of the ice can't move the land, the ice cracks and buckles. This causes large chunks of broken ice to shoot up in a variety of interesting shapes. Here's Kate getting a close-up of the ice surface.

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    Of course you need to include the token "Scott Base as seen from the pressure ridges" shot.

    Skidoos_SB_front_transition.jpg (166790 bytes)
    A number of Ski-Doos staged on the land, the pressure ridges on the sea ice in the background. The Ski-Doos are used by a few of the science event staff as a means for short-distance travel, typically under 50km. They're also known as Ski-Don'ts because no-one else is allowed to use them. Mainly due to the fact that someone would invariably end up doing something stupid and end up doing damage to themselves and the machine.

  • 9/11/2014: With numbers on base peaking at around 86 people at present, it's certainly been a hive of activity. Despite this bustle of activity, things have been surprisingly smooth sailing for the most parts, an indication that the science event planning has certainly improved on previous years. The run of simply amazing weather helps a lot in that flights generally run on schedule, people can get into the field to do their thing on the planned dates and it's not much of a mission to do anything outside in a balmy -10C with little wind.

    Well almost. The submarine camera robot thing I repaired last Saturday (see below entry on 2/11/14); the same piece of equipment where the American manufacturers used a fibre optic cable connector which is designed to be used on delicate communications equipment housed in an air conditioned room; and this fibre optic connector is located on the outside of this camera robot; the same camera robot that goes into the ocean; the same ocean which is covered in metres of ice and full of killer whales; and the connector has no waterproofing or protection at all... You can see where this is going. Yesterday morning I received a radio call from the people in the field, which went something to the tune of:
    "You know the fibre connector on our ROV (remote operated vehicle)?"
    "Yeeahhhh... that would be the really fragile one that I said to be really careful with because if it breaks, your $350,000 camera becomes a paperweight..."
    "Actually yes, about that... we've had a wee accident...."
    So they dragged it back to Scott Base on a Ski-Doo sled and I spent the rest of Saturday trying to fusion splice a very specialised stainless steel armoured fibre optic cable. I'm not very good at splicing fibre at the best of times, however a few hours later things were looking surprisingly as though they might work again. It was a bit like fixing the drive shaft on Michael Schumacher's Ferrari using sellotape and a margarine pottle, followed by the car then winning the Formula One.

    So after I'd dropped everything to finish this urgent job so they could get back out into the field and complete their mission, the science event people were all happy and asked "And where do we contact Alec? We'd like to buy a couple of dozen beers!" My stressful day instantly turned into one of happiness, what a fantastic way to unwind at the end of the week. Until they saw me smiling and added "Oh no, no, we've run out of beers at our field camp, these are for us!" Gee, thanks......

    IBR_inside_C17.jpg (110848 bytes)
    Summer is handy for photos, because I can easily find plenty of interesting things on the shared network location. This image is of the second machine from Southern Lakes Helicopters which flew down inside the C17 aircraft this week. The big white pontoon things are cargo pods which are fitted to the skids on either side of their B3 Squirrel helicopter.

    Crater_Hill_antenna_replacement.jpg (121006 bytes)
    A work photo from the week. I picked a windless day to replace a couple of antennas at our Crater Hill main radio site. Pictured here is my lovely assistant, Mr Rich Hunter, an avionics engineer kindly on short term loan to us from Air New Zealand.

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    Walking back from Crater Hill via the wind farm where Ray was also taking advantage of the windless day to do some routine maintenance.

    Evening_view_6-11-14_11PM.jpg (88995 bytes)
    A nice view out of my workshop window at 11PM on the 6th of November. I think that's the date of my parents' 36th-ish wedding anniversary, maybe. Either way, congratulations. I would have disowned me by now. Although it's 24-hour daylight until late February, the sun is low in the sky during the wee hours. It's the closest thing we have to night time at present.

    Skua_and_seals_pressure_ridges.jpg (86919 bytes)
    You can easily tell that this photo and all of the following ones are just borrowed from the shared collection on the network here. You can tell this because they're not all crappy and they do include pictures of cutesy animals. Not sure exactly where this was taken, but it's obviously on the sea ice with the lower western slopes of Mt Erebus in the background. The bird is a South Polar Skua and the big slug things are Weddell Seals. As some mentioned in passing the other day; "those lazy bastards need to get a job".

    Newborn_seal_pup.jpg (89426 bytes)
    Here's a shot for those animal lovers. Not for you, Mr G. Hooper. He once said to me, in his thick Preston accent, "You've heard of an animal lover, well... I'm an animal HAAAAATER! I think he was mainly referring to domestic cats and dogs, but we won't get tied up in details. All the blood is because it's a new-born seal pup, and that's what else normally comes out of a seal. Not because someone's been clubbing, you sickos.

    Dry_Valleys_lake.jpg (199249 bytes)
    It's a well-known fact that unlike me, Becky has a flash camera and likes photography. This is an ice lake somewhere in the Dry Valleys. Despite the fact that Becky's job is the medic and one of the cleaners, they try to get a few staff out and about to help keep morale up.

    Rugby_field.jpg (87054 bytes)
    This is what's left of the rugby field. Those with an eagle eye may spot the green buildings of Scott Base just under the centre of this one remaining goal post. The rugby field has been a point of contention over recent years. Historically, there used to be an annual big rugby game between Scott Base and the Americans at McMurdo. The main issue was that some of the Americans, many of whom are rather well-built lads, took things way too seriously. As a result, there used to be frequent carnage, including sprains and broken bones. So in the interests of everyone not getting totally f*ed up, they haven't run this annual event since about 2009.

  • 2/11/2014: The weather Gods have smiled upon us this week, it's been surprisingly pleasant in general. Sometimes. Looked at the forecast on Monday morning, which reported little to no wind all day with temperatures peaking around -9C. Time for an overdue fibre optic cable route inspection, consisting of a 5km walk over a few large hills and down a glacier from Scott Base to the Satellite Earth Station at Arrival Heights. Unfortunately the wind up there wasn't what I'd personally class as "little to no wind". Though I'm not a meteorologist, so what would I know? What I can say for sure that I could barely stand up in the strong gale.

    I had other work in the area, but that was one of those outside climbing around jobs where you really did need little to no wind. Forecast for the following day was for strong winds. This of course turned out to be zero wind, so silly me for relying on the forecast. Missed the weather opportunity to get the job done. Better luck next time.

    But enough idle chit-chat about the weather. That's the kind of crap that people dribble on about when they don't really have anything to say; which is about where I'm at today. However, I did do a few semi-interesting jobs during the week which might be better explained with the help of a few photos.

    Underwater_camera_system.jpg (160809 bytes)
    We have a science event here at present that has an objective of some kind of filming in the water under the sea ice. So to do this they have this thing called a ROV, which I discovered stands for Remote Operated Vehicle. Essentially it's a submarine camera thing which is remote controlled from an operator on the surface. It's tethered by the big roll of green 'umbilical cord' which delivers a 400V DC power supply and a fibre optic cable for control data and video returned to the surface. The cable is 766m long, according to my Optical Time Domain Reflectometer; which is a piece of test equipment for measuring fibre optic cable.

    Underwater_camera.jpg (134100 bytes)
    This is the submarine camera bit. As you've probably guessed by now, I ended up fixing the thing. Despite the science event's best efforts, it all worked fine in NZ, but when they tested it again before heading out onto the ice shelf, it had multiple problems; it wouldn't power up most of the time, and when it did power up the video signal was bad. And their video monitor didn't work... There were multiple issues caused by a number of things. Despite being a $350,000 instrument, I had the impression that the American company who built it, completely exhausted their design and development budget on the submarine camera bit, it's pretty good. But the control stuff that stays on the surface looks as though it's been cobbled together with minimal time and funding. I spent most of yesterday getting it working, after which they all headed off to do their underwater filming, which is probably happening as I write this.

    ScottBase_28-10-14.jpg (132844 bytes)
    Suppose I'd better include a token Scott Base photo from my walk up the hill, along the fibre optic cable route. The ground laid cable, visible at the bottom of the photo, carries a laser interpretation of the radio signals transmitted and received at the remote Satellite Earth Station, carrying the signal to the satellite modem equipment located here at Scott Base. The cable needs regular inspection because rocks can roll onto it, it can be pulled and damaged by glacial snow movement and people can walk or drive over it. The big signs saying "Warning: do not walk or drive over cables" would appear to be a feeble deterrent. Might be time to see if a home-made Taser helps deliver the message any clearer.

    McMurdo_Station_28-10-14.jpg (150419 bytes)
    Of course you can't have a token Scott Base photo without a token McMurdo Station photo, seen here with the Antarctic mainland in the background. In case you're worried that the following photos will be token 'selfie' shots, fear not. People who regularly take ridiculous 'selfie' photos make me violently ill. If I wanted to see especially annoying photos of their insufferable faces, I'd take them myself. Did someone say something about a Taser a bit earlier?

    MtErebus_28-10-14.jpg (95066 bytes)
    Instead, here's a token shot of Mt Erebus, with some funky looking clouds above it. I'm sure cloud scientists worldwide will be outraged by my blatant ignorance of cloud recognition. They'll all be pointing angrily and shouting "No, no, you ignorant fool! Can you not clearly see that they're blah-be-blah-o-nimbus clouds in the something-or-other-o-sphere?!!" Actually, no, good sir, I cannot.

    Ice_crack_drilling-penguins.jpg (185580 bytes)
    Well since my work photos are so mundane, here are someone else's. There have been regular Sunday trips to the historic huts for staff and visitors. The journey is along the sea ice, which has large cracks in some places. The cracks need to be drilled to check if they're safe to cross with the vehicle. Well at least they're all focused on doing something semi-productive as opposed to taking photos of those shite penguins.

    Hagglund_bridging_crack.jpg (177487 bytes)
    Hagglund vehicles can cross a maximum ice crack width of 70cm (0.7m or about 2.5 feet). However, under the edges of the ice crack, the ice can be eroded very thinly. If there is less than 75cm thickness of ice either side of the crack and/or the crack is more than 70cm wide, the Hagglunds carry metal bridges to safely cross a wide crack.