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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October 2013
  • 24/10/2013: After a day of settling in, it's probably about time for a sign-off. At least coming back from a second year didn't seem nearly as horrifying as the first time two years ago. This time it's only taken a day or so to come to grips with having more than three cars on the road at a time, rain, seeing large groups of people, animals, insects, grass and children. I fear it'll take somewhat longer to acclimatise to the intense heat and humidity of the real world. And having to pay for things again, what's up with that?!

    "So what's next?" everyone has been asking. First up, acclimatisation. It's +26C here in Christchurch at present. Something about this heat just makes you want to put on bundles of clothing, go inside a blast freezer and attempt to run PVC insulated cabling which has the flexibility of reinforced concrete at low temperatures. Just like old times. No, not really. But the thought of drinking myself sober on the stunning array of new craft beers that have popped up over the last 13 months has crossed my mind several times.

    Then we'll see what crops up. No doubt a bit of contract work here and there. More Amiga computer repairs are heading my way already. A trip to Sydney in November. Fleetwood Mac in concert in December. Christmas with the family in Bluff. Fun with friends in the New Year.

    And a third term at Scott Base in 2014? Well I wasn't really intending to do it the first or second time, so who knows....

    Thanks to all my family and friends who have kept in touch over the frustrations of the summer season and the long darkness of the winter season. The little treats and things so kindly sent to me at Scott Base really do help keep the spirit alive. Special thanks to Andi and Dave for the craft beer and pork crackle; to Paula for the seemingly limitless generosity of goodies of every type, Jim and Rett for the occasional phone call and goodies from Australia, and all of the NZ craft breweries for making me so happy.

    I guess that's it then. Farewell and thanks to the many readers worldwide.

    Until next time perhaps?
    Anthony Hoffman.

    C17-landed.jpg (20336 bytes)
    The C17 aircraft landed right on 4PM on Tuesday with the perfect precision of the US Air Force.

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    One last view of the Scott Base radio workshop, where I spent most of my working days. Practically every day is a work day at Scott Base, so since 2010 I've come to know everything quite well.

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    We waited patiently as the aircraft door opened and the new people walked out. For many of them, this is their first ever sight of Antarctica. The Americans from McMurdo Station have red coats; the people with the New Zealand programme are wearing orange and black.

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    Here we are, waiting patiently in the departure lounge to get on board the C17 and fly home. The departure lounge and the sea ice runway just happen to be the same thing.

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    The Americans get ushered into the oversized Cress people-mover-truck-thing. Actually, no-one really knows what it's supposed to be. The Kiwis get packed into the back of a Toyota Landcruiser like sardines, they'll arrive at Scott Base in about 15 minutes.

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    Doesn't take long to get all of the passengers onto the vehicles and haul them away. Probably not a good idea to leave the new people out in the cold for a long time as we were.

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    Then all of the cargo gets unloaded from the C17. This included multiple pallets of items for both McMurdo and Scott Base, plus a tractor for the South Pole traverse which had returned from having a transmission overhaul in Christchurch. We're still waiting patiently.

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    Finally we got a wave from the US Air Force guy. All aboard! There were fewer than 40 passengers in total - Kiwis and Americans, and at least 60 seats available. Jump on in and sit where you like.

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    During the five hour flight to Christchurch everyone becomes a little restless. Most people wear earmuffs due to the noise inside the aircraft. It's not usually easy to sleep unless you make yourself a little nest of extreme weather clothing in the middle of the floor.

    So we landed in Christchurch at 11PM Tuesday evening, and that was the completion of another 13 months of living and working in Antarctica.

  • 23/10/2013: After a day of weather delays, we took off yesterday at 6PM, landing in Christchurch at 11PM, home a bit after midnight. Nice to be back home again, though I am missing the Scott Base coffee machine already.

    Will post a few photos and final comments in a few days once I've settled back into the real world again.

  • 20/10/2013: It's been a bit of an unusual week as most of our winter crew were supposed to have gradually departed from last Wednesday onwards. But a lingering weather system has delivered a lot of snow, strong winds and low visibility, resulting in flights over the past five days being cancelled. As far as I know, I'm still scheduled to fly out of here at 4PM tomorrow on Monday afternoon and I suspect my fellow winter crew who were due to depart over the week have also been migrated to this flight. So it'll be particularly nice to all fly out together. All going well, I'll be back in Christchurch around 9PM Monday. At least we have a fairly nice looking weather forecast to look forward to tomorrow.

    Fortunately for the Americans at McMurdo Station, the US government have reached some kind of agreement to put the country back in motion, which includes McMurdo Station. The stormy week has been a blessing in disguise for some of the McMurdo staff, they would have otherwise have been flown out; then would have to be re-employed and flown back down once the weather cleared. Due to this minimised staff impact, there were plenty of happy Americans about when I called over this morning.

    So all going well, this will be my final post from Scott Base for 2013. As good as our season has been, thirteen months is a long time to spend in one place, so it'll be nice to get back to the real world once more. Even if that does mean I'll have to pay for food again and cook it myself!

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    The McMurdo Coffee House has opened once more. It's one of the oldest buildings on station. In the past they served coffees, but for the time being it's just open as a lounge area.

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    A tracked trailer stored outside at McMurdo Station.

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    As most of us have now packed up our usual outside work clothes, we're now left with only our ECW (extreme cold weather) clothing which is supposed to be worn during aircraft travel. The problem is that is it's ridiculously hot to wear on days like today when it's only -10C and little wind.

  • 13/10/2013: As expected, things got very busy very quickly this week. The action started when the summer crew and the remainder of the winter crew arrived last Sunday together with the NZ Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. There was a major issue when the ice runway became shrouded in dense ground fog just before landing; so the pilots could not see to land the plane and there was not enough fuel to return to NZ. They had enough fuel to circle for three hours, which they did while waiting for the fog to clear. No such luck however, so they were forced to make an emergency landing on the runway using instruments only, which they pulled off perfectly. Full credit to the NZ Air Force pilots. Then more drama as the Minister's overnight trip turned into a two-day trip due to flight cancellations the following day. Read the press release here.

    So since then the fire training people have been on station and are running regular fire drills every few hours, which is good for learning about the fire procedures, but bad for productivity. I've not yet started my handover, so hope to get that done once the fire trainers are finished this coming week. At present I have a return to NZ date of the 21st of October, but that's liable to extend depending on how everything else pans out. Now that the new people have arrived and the calmness and productivity of winter has transformed to boisterous chaos, I feel about ready to go back home.

    Meanwhile at McMurdo Station, the US Government shutdown is causing all sorts of issues. Essentially the station has now begun shutting down to 'caretaker mode' where the station will essentially run with a skeleton crew, similar to winter operations. I was talking some US scientists last night who arrived during the week, then upon landing were told "Welcome to Antarctica, don't unpack because you're out on the next flight". So at this stage they've stopped all summer science events and all non-essential science support. As Scott Base is generally independent from McMurdo, we're not expecting it to have a big impact on our science events for this year, except for the few events that were to work in with the Americans. So yep, it's all go here.

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    According to tradition, we held the winter to summer handover ceremony during the week. This includes lowering the small winter NZ flag and raising the larger summer one.

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    Just prior to the flag ceremony outside, we were summoned to an all-hands meeting for an update on the situation with the US programme and the government shutdown. They're only smiling because I'm trying to take an impromptu and probably inappropriate photo during the serious meeting.

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    On Wednesday evening, our winter crew of 12 took the opportunity to have a short Hagglund trip out to the 'square frame' hut, about 20 minutes away from Scott Base, to have a final catch up. The first of our winter crew were due to begin departing a few days ago, but typical flight delays have resulted in them staying an extra three days to date.

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    Some nice sunsets at present, the last sunset is just over a week away on the 23rd of October. Not sure if I'll still be here then or not. Excuse the light reflections on the window of my workshop.

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    A nice day to get out and about this morning; this is the view from the Scott Base road over the Williams Field road and pressure ridges.

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    Graeme (right) is especially proud to have his son Alec (left) arrive as part of the new summer crew. He'll be running the Scott Base bar and shop until February/March next year.

  • 6/10/2013: Well the first half of the new 2013/2014 crew is here. 18 of them arrived on Thursday with a sizable number of returnees among them. The last half of the new people was due to arrive yesterday, but following bad weather in the forecast, the flight had been moved to today. Typical Antarctica weather meant that despite the forecast, yesterday was one of the best days I've seen in many months with very warm temperatures (-10C), clear skies and little wind. The forecasted storm arrived at about 2AM this morning, so the flight for today has been moved tomorrow, though the weather isn't looking so flash for Monday either. They'll get here eventually. Not that I'm worried about the delays, the more quiet time I get, the better.

    All of the first timers did their outside training last night, which involves setting up a field camp, cooking freeze-dry food for dinner followed by a night out in a polar tent. I'm sure they would have had a great night up until the overnight storm hit. Welcome to Antarctica.

    I also celebrated my 35th birthday on Tuesday, my fourth consecutive birthday at Scott Base. Our water engineer, Graeme celebrated his 50th birthday on the same day. Nothing like the excuse of a double birthday celebration to have another party before all of the new people arrived.

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    Since the weather was so nice yesterday, Graeme and I took the opportunity to visit some of our American winter-over friends, some of who are due to depart tomorrow if the flight ever gets here. This is the view while taking a short-cut walk down the hill into McMurdo Station.

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    The short-cut into McMurdo goes past the carpenter's workshop which often has any number of interesting signs and decorations fixed to the outside.

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    During the walk over the hill to McMurdo last night, Graeme excitedly pointed out the wind turbines which had stopped completely due to the lack of wind; a rare occasion.

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    Our chef, Damian made yet another spectacular effort for my birthday dinner on Tuesday. Bacon Explosion, garlic potatoes, some wild venison sausages from Graeme's son who is due down on the next flight. He's running the Scott Base bar and shop over summer. Damian even pulled out a few special treats he'd been saving, such as a delicious salmon.

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    Just when we thought it couldn't get any better, Damian revealed the Chub cake. All you need to know about it is that Graeme has an addiction to one of the American beers from McMurdo, called Old Chub.

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    It was even nice enough on Thursday to do a few jobs up at our Crater Hill radio site. Here's the view over towards Observation Hill and the Americans working on the sea ice runway, probably due to open in a week or so.