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

Anthony-ScottBase-small.jpg (10124 bytes)
October 2012
  • 28/10/12: The base is now bulging at the seams with 88 of our 86 beds in use, which means a couple of people have to sleep outside in portable huts. It's a clear sunny day as I type this with a typical temperature of -20C, so many of the base staff and visitors have taken the opportunity to get outside to enjoy the day which means it's surprisingly quiet. I'm on fire crew this week, so am staying inside for our single day weekend to get a bit of paperwork done.

    The Americans had their annual Halloween party last night, which a group of Scott Base people visited. Can't say I'm overly fond of those large drunken gatherings at McMurdo Station, so I was only too happy to stay home and maintain the fire crew watch.

    It's also that time of the year when the solar powered radio sites are getting put in for the summer season. The radio equipment and batteries are removed prior to the darkness of winter as there is no sunlight to keep the batteries charged. After many weather delays I finally have the Black Island HF receiver site running along with our VHF site on Mt Erebus. The Black Island job was on one of those days where the weather forecast wasn't great, but they decided to fly anyway. I had requested four hours ground time, but after three hours received a radio call from the Americans that they were coming to get us. So after a mad rush to get everything finished, they then called to say they weren't coming as it was too cloudy. Eventually they told us that the deteriorating visibility meant we were quite possibly spending the night there. Or the next day or two. At 6PM we'd boiled a pot of fresh snow to cook a delicious freeze dry dinner, when suddenly they decided the cloud had cleared just enough to try one last evening flight; in ten minutes time. So another mad rush to pack everything up, though fortunately this time we were able to escape back to Scott Base for a late dinner.

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    Here's the Americans' helicopter at the start of the day, prior to our Black Island trip. The visibility is not great and it was getting worse. However, they opted to push on.

    Black_Island_beach.jpg (129497 bytes)
    While waiting on the decision between transport from Black Island or staying the night, we ended up with about six hours to kill. It was relatively nice weather where we were with little wind, light cloud and lovely temperatures of -10C. Perfect for a walk to the beach to recline and watch the frozen ocean.

    Black_Island_23-10-12.jpg (141488 bytes)
    The 3 metre square equipment shelter would have made an especially cosy camp site for the four of us. But we eventually left at 6:30PM to fly back home to Scott Base when the cloud lifted momentarily. Just as well, the following day was super cloudy. It would have made for an extended camping trip.

    Mt_Erebus_26-10-12.jpg (61735 bytes)
    After several more days of weather delays, we finally made a break through the cloud to install our highest VHF radio site at 1850m on the left hand side of the mountain seen above. Watch out Air New Zealand, it's Mt Erebus!

    HoopersShoulder_radio_site.jpg (215762 bytes)
    This is the Hoopers Shoulder radio site which provides some UHF linking, wide area VHF communications and full duplex VHF communications links to the Italian station in Terra Nova Bay so they can make low cost telephone calls thanks to the good folk at Telecom NZ.

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    Looking west from the Hoopers Shoulder site on Mt Erebus, the Antarctica mainland is visible, about 80km away.

    ScottBase_26-10-12.jpg (78587 bytes)
    Here's Scott Base viewed from the helicopter. Yep, looks about the same as it did last year. For those of you who asked, I live in the green building.

    Hagglund_penguin.jpg (89967 bytes)
    Meanwhile over the past couple of Sundays, there have been some popular trips to visit the historic Scott's and Shackleton's huts at Cape Evans and Cape Royds, which I enjoy about the same as annoying drunken parties with the Americans. But fortunately these kind of excursions are not mandatory, so are easily avoided. To minimise interaction and disturbance to the wildlife, there is a strict Antarctic code of conduct that requires a minimum separation of 100m between vehicles and wildlife, as demonstrated by the Hagglund above. Perhaps a minor misjudgement in distance there.

    Ten_metres_from_wildlife.jpg (116804 bytes)
    The same environmental code of conduct requires a minimum separation of 10m between humans and wildlife, as demonstrated above. Perhaps a little confusion between metres and millimeters? I wouldn't say advanced mathematics is one of my strong points either. Forget the magpies Andi, that thing would definitely peck your eyes out!

  • 21/10/12: Activity around Scott Base continued to rise this week with a lot of activity around new science events beginning for the 2012 summer season. All of the 2011/2012 winter staff departed for Christchurch during the week, so it was sad to see them go. Hayden, who has been doing my job here over the last year, phoned a few days ago to say he was enjoying being able to go outside in shorts and T-shirt. Not sure what's wrong with him, you can do that here!

    Had a few interesting visitors this week, including the chief pilot for Air NZ. We all enjoyed some excellent science presentations in the bar, delivered by the team who will be travelling out to Roosevelt Island next week, 700km from Scott Base. Their work involves drilling hundreds of metres of ice core samples from which the frozen air bubbles are analysed to find out what gasses were present in the atmosphere thousands of years ago.

    With the final sunset of the year only a few days away, we celebrated the end of the working week on Saturday evening with the annual beach themed party in the Scott Base bar. At present sunrise is at 3AM and sunset at 12:40AM. Just 2hrs and 20mins of partial darkness for now, the sun will be permanently above the horizon in a few days time.

    I've spent the last few days getting all of the equipment ready for the summer installations of the Hoopers Shoulder (Mt Erebus) repeater installation and the Black Island remote HF receiver site. This year I'm implementing a new strategy which should reduce battery power consumption by around 70%. The site has four fixed frequency single sideband HF receivers which are connected to four Tait UHF FM transmitters for linking the recovered audio back to Scott Base. For the last 20 years or so, the setup has been to operate the transmitters continuously, regardless if there is speech activity or not. Obviously this is a colossal waste of power at the solar powered site. The batteries usually go flat at some point in the season when we have a week or two of cloudy days. Of course you can fit speech detectors to operate the transmitters as required, but when transmissions are weak, you need to be able to remotely over-ride any speech detection to prevent weak transmissons from being muted. Because the Black Island HF receiver site is almost 40km away from Scott Base there was no way to remotely over-ride any speech detection. Using the new radio telemetry network I built last winter season, this is now possible. So one of the jobs for next week will be to implement this at Black Island. More details here and here if anyone is interested.

    Sea_ice_runway_16-10-12.jpg (111732 bytes)
    A job on top of Crater Hill during the week, 300m above sea level, gave an excellent view of the sea ice runway/airport, visible centre. The wind farm can be seen in the lower left corner and Observation Hill centre right. Black Island, where our remote HF radio receiver site is, can be see in the centre on the horizon.

    Koru_MtErebus.jpg (272687 bytes)
    One of the communications operators, Deirdre, took this photo of the Koru which was mounted behind Scott Base last year as a memorial to the 1979 Mt Erebus aircraft disaster. Mt Erebus is the big volcanoey looking thing in the background, the bane of all aircraft.

    HaydenS_14-10-12.jpg (92193 bytes)
    Here's Hayden who has done a great job here at Scott Base over the last 12 months. I handed over to him a year ago when I left Oct 24th last year, now he's handed the job back to me. Would be great to see him come back again, we'll see what he gets up to in the meantime.

    Skidoos_14-10-12.jpg (152003 bytes)
    Just before the old winter crew departed, they were fortunate enough to have one final skidoo trip last Sunday afternoon. The things haven't been used in months, hence their 2-stroke engines are a bit smokey first off.

    Last_sunset_party_20-10-12.jpg (213405 bytes)
    As mentioned earlier, the beach themed last sunset party yesterday evening was a hoot and most of the Scott Base staff and science visitors got into the theme. I'm at the right in the photo above with a couple of the visiting fish study science students telling me about their research work down here. No Murray, it's not time for the secret code-word just yet. OK, only the good folk at Tait Custom Integration are going to have the faintest idea what I'm talking about here...

    Armed_offender_SB_shop.jpg (139628 bytes)
    Some of the staff from Auckland were starting to feel a little home sick, so we decided to make them feel more at home with a staged "armed hold up" of the Scott Base shop.

    Emergency_response_plan.jpg (117124 bytes)
    Fortunately Antarctica NZ are well prepared for every eventuality. It was only a matter of consulting the Emergency Response Plan and the "offender" was quickly subdued. I suggested we should take a leaf out of the Wellington City Council's emergency plans and also plan for a zombie apocalypse. Could happen.

  • 14/10/12: At the end of week two, the pace of the new the summer season is quickly gaining momentum. The 2011/2012 winter crew are all getting ready for their departure on Monday and we have had a number of science events arriving at Scott Base to make early preparations for their work. The fire trainers also arrived on site this week and have been running as many as three emergency drills every day in order to polish everyone's fire fighting skills for the coming season. Needless to say, everyone is living on edge waiting for the next round of screeching fire alarms. Fortunately the drills tend to be only during work hours. Unfortunately they tend to happen just after you've spent 20 minutes squeezing yourself into a tight awkward place under the floor to run cables.

    Thanks to everyone back home for the many Email contacts, it's always nice to know I'm gone but not forgotten. A few people have asked how the transition back to Scott Base weather has gone. In short, just fine. We've had mild temperatures as warm as -10C and generally not much lower than -20C. Plus I've not had many reasons to go outside much recently, most of my work is still based indoors.

    A couple of interesting web links are these Scott Base Weather and Webcams pages which show the current conditions here at Scott Base.

    SB_sunset1_8-10-12.jpg (82966 bytes)
    I went for a stroll around the sea ice pressure ridges last Monday and took a few sunset photos just before 10PM. The hours of daylight are steadily growing each day and the sun will be permanently above the horizon in about a week.

    SB_sunset2_8-10-12.jpg (163285 bytes)
    Yet another sunset photo. As boring as they may be, make the most of them because photos of the sun in the sky are even more boring. And that's all I'll have to offer shortly from about the 20th of October until the first sunset of April 2013.

    Sea_ice_study1.jpg (143812 bytes)
    There are already a number of science events in full swing. The group pictured above have a series of shipping container based labs just out the back door of Scott Base. Their work involves taking core samples of sea ice then analysing the gasses contained within the ice.

    Sea_ice_study2.jpg (157340 bytes)
    The science staff are very passionate and excited about their work. They are always eager to scoop anyone passing by into their lab and talk about some of the work in progress. In all honesty, 90% of their detailed explanations and acronyms border on incomprehension to my unscientific ear. The photo above is a thin shaving of sea ice with a light polarising filter placed in front. Different gasses (e.g. chlorine, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, etc) show up as different colours. The deeper the colour, the more intense the concentration of gas. I think. Will not be applying for that Ph.D myself.

  • 7/10/12: Everything ran to schedule this week with our C17 flight leaving Christchurch at 10:30AM on the 1st of October, arriving at the McMurdo sea ice runway five hours later to be greeted with the familiar refreshing feeling of -35C air icing up the inside of your nose.

    It's good to be back actually, feels just like coming home again. Better yet, Hayden who has been doing my job here for the last year has done a superb job of tidying the workshop. The place is looking great!

    It's been a productive week of Antarctic field skills refresher courses, handover with Hayden and getting stuck into a few pre-season jobs. Returning for a second time is a hell of a lot easier as expected. I've simply slotted back in just as if I hadn't been away for the last 11 months.

    C17_landing_1-10-12.jpg (176811 bytes)
    Hayden took this superb photo of our C17 landing on the McMurdo sea ice runway on Monday afternoon.

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    Our convoy of three Toyota Landcruisers driving from the ice runway on the way to Scott Base.

    USAP_people_mover.jpg (90321 bytes)
    The Americans appear to have put Ivan the Terra-bus into retirement and are now using their new people movers for transporting their staff to and from the airport.

    Flagpole_ceremony_6-10-12.jpg (175726 bytes)
    An Antarctica tradition started by Sir Ed Hillary in 1957 was the flag raising ceremony to formalise the handover from the winter crew to the new seasons crew.

    Birthday_cake.jpg (131296 bytes)
    It was also my 34th birthday on Monday the 1st, the same day we flew in. My third consecutive birthday at Scott Base in fact. Bobbie the chef made me a fantastic multi-layer chocolate cherry cake! For those that don't know, Johnny 5 is the nick name that I acquired last season. More people know me by that name than 'Anthony'. I gained the name after a pre-Antarctica training session in 2010. As a group we had to count ourselves off from one to four. The guy before me said four and in a lapse of concentration I said five. Someone yelled out Johnny 5 and the name stuck. Weird but true.