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

Anthony-ScottBase-small.jpg (10124 bytes)
October 2014
  • 26/10/2014: Here's something a bit new; Matt Windsor, one of my helpers from the various work out and about last week, has put together a short four-minute video of the repeater work in the Dry Valleys last week. It's high resolution and 600MB in size, which means it'll take a few hours for you to download it. But if you can spare the bandwidth, it's easily worth the wait. To download it, right click here and select "Save target as..." or "Save Link As". If I can figure out how, or work up enough motivation to, I might make a much smaller low-resolution copy to cut down the download waiting time.

    Anyway, it's been another one of those hurry up and wait weeks. Due to much bad weather in the forecast, some of which has come through, some which hasn't; we've not seen any aircraft movements since last Sunday, meaning no freight deliveries, a bunch of people anxiously waiting to go home, and large groups of science event staff itching to get down here to begin their work for the summer. Things are looking semi-promising for the flight today, so if flights do happen, we'll have 18 people arrive today and another 16 tomorrow. I suspect things will rapidly change from quiet to chaotic with multiple science groups all arriving at once, each bringing with them a new set of demands for what communications bits and pieces they want, or what bit of specialist equipment they solely rely on and they've only just realised now it's been broken for the past year and need to go out into the field now and so can I fix it right now without any parts or information. Clearly I could rant about this for some time, but will spare you the agony. In fact most of the science groups are actually quite good.

    Last sunset this week as well, meaning the sun is above the horizon 24 hours per day until late February next year. They had the annual last sunset party in the Scott Base bar last night, which was decided to be a Mexican dress-up theme. I'm not at all a fan of dress-up, so came dressed in my normal clothes; shorts and T-shirt. My story was that I was dressed up as a bottle of Corona beer, i.e. very plain and ordinary.

    As a result of the lack of freight movement, Scott Base ran out of coffee beans this week, which is a major show stopper. Fortunately the Antarctic Heritage Trust girls came through with their stash, which kept us going for a few days. Then someone arrived back from McMurdo Station yesterday with a 5kg sack of coffee beans. Ask no questions, get no lies.

    Whiteboard-flight_delay.jpg (125009 bytes)
    Flight delay notifications have been a dominating subject on the notice board this week, much to the annoyance of the TV3 crew trying to get back to NZ, plus a few others. But those waiting to get back to Christchurch have been filling in their time in various ways, including vacuuming carpets and helping in the kitchen. In the case of the TV3 crew, they've been making various short videos for presentation on the TV3 news this week. They came and filmed my morning 9AM radio show the other day, also known as the 9 o'clock rant. Clearly I have a face for radio, not TV. For those interested, apparently you can see this online video clip here.

    View_25-10-14.jpg (105461 bytes)
    In an ever repeating cycle, the weather forecast has been constant doom and gloom, causing the week of flight delays. Some of the bad weather comes through as forecast, some of it doesn't. As an example, yesterday they made the call of winds gusting to 40 knots, cloudy skies and quarter mile visibility in blowing snow. And this shot is the actual weather yesterday. Needless to say, there are some fairly unpopular weather forecasters at McMurdo at present.

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    That also means that my predecessor, Grumps, has been waiting all week to get back home to NZ after being here for 13 months. Not that he's overly worried, he's still getting paid. Plus he's been helping me out with various odd jobs all week, such as working on the lone worker/man-down decoder unit, pictured above, which sets off an alarm in the communications office if a user's radio detects the user has fallen over and been inactive for some time.

    Anthony-EMR_survey.jpg (169728 bytes)
    Another job this week was the EMR (electromagnetic radiation) survey of various transmitting antennas and RADAR units in Hagglunds. Someone had raised safety concerns that sitting inside the Hagglund with the RADAR going gave you cancer. So here I am above with a radiation monitor unit, putting that myth to bed. Thanks to Becky for the photo, she's got a flash new camera and was trying out all the different functions, including the dramatic contrast captured by monochrome photography. I probably look a bit pissed off in this shot because it was a bit nippy with 15 knots of -20C wind in your face.

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    Another dramatic monochrome photo from Becky. Some of the storms this week brought a fair dump of snow; here is one of the vehicle mechanics clearing off one of the trucks.

    Molly-snow_bike.jpg (127372 bytes)
    At times, it's been nice enough after work for a bit of recreation. Here's Molly on his fat tyre snow bike.

    Kite_skiing_sea_ice.jpg (149706 bytes)
    An increasingly popular recreational activity is kite skiing on the sea ice. Not sure if I'd have the patience, some of these guys spend more time untangling big balls of kite strings and fixing torn and broken bits than they have the kite in the air.

  • 19/10/2014: Fire training eventually finished at the start of the week, so as much as we all like them, we were glad to see the three fire trainers leave for home. Since then there's been much catching up on a lot of work that had been hampered by the many fire drills and fire training scenarios from the previous week.

    Something a little different with this season is the early arrival of the pilot from Southern Lakes Helicopters and their B3 Squirrel helicopter, ZK-IDE. This means I was able to begin the repeater put-in work early this summer, which was completed in record time over three days this week. Usually there are frequent delays due to bad weather, which we had, but the few bad weather days we did have arrived at just the right time to allow me to keep on top of things. Another job thrown into the mix was establishing a new repeater at Cape Roberts for the NIWA dive event next month. They're operating in an area which is hidden from the rest of our usual VHF radio network, so this new temporary site provides them with essential radio communications for their month long expedition in the field.

    So in summary, it's been a busy and productive week. Things will only get busier from now on as more science events begin arriving. Demands will certainly be on the rise.

    Lots of photos from much out and about work this week, so be patient while waiting for these to transfer from the web server.

    Black_Island_shelter-antennas.jpg (190774 bytes)
    Monday was too cloudy to fly to Hoopers Shoulder on Mt Erebus, but it was nice enough to get the equipment installed at our Black Island remote HF receiver site for the summer. This is the equipment shelter with the delta antenna in the background. Everything is solar powered. Faint HF signals are received from over 1000km away at this electrically quiet site and the received audio is sent to Scott Base 30km away over UHF FM links.

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    Part of the repeater put-in work every summer is inspecting everything for any damage that may have happened over the winter. It's fairly common to find solar modules ripped off in severe storms, damaged antennas and more. Fortunately Black Island was mostly in good shape this time, aside from this corroded N-type connector. The centre pin should be a shiny gold colour, not black. It's probably had moisture in it over summer where the temperature can often get above zero degrees, causing the accumulated snow to melt and get everything wet. Fortunately only a minute or two to fit a brand new connector. With each site visit you always take a collection of tools and various small parts for jobs such as this.

    Hoopers_shelter.jpg (123037 bytes)
    Late on Tuesday afternoon the cloud cleared enough for us to land at Hoopers Shoulder at 2185m on the western side of Mt Erebus. The equipment shelter is still there and nothing appears to be missing from the tower, so that's always a good start. I was dreading visiting the site as most often it's miserably cold and windy at the best of times. We had about -26C at Scott Base and a freezing 15 knot wind, so usually you'd expect it to be even colder and windier up on the mountain. However, I was pleasantly surprised; there was no wind at all and it was much warmer than Scott Base, -21C. A genuinely stunning day.

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    This is what's inside the shelter over winter; a solar regulator and empty rack frame full of wiring. They've my gloves on the floor, needed to take them off to use the camera. Although the small hut is well sealed, there are a few tiny gaps in the cable entry holes just above the floor. When the wind howls, the snow gets pushed in through the smallest of gaps.

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    Our pilot, Heff, was understandably annoyed about the prospect of carrying over 300kg of batteries and radio equipment from the helicopter to the site over many icy rocks. He said "I'll be back in a minute..." and found a much closer spot to land among the rocks.

    Hoopers_view_west.jpg (106710 bytes)
    Usually the only good thing about being up Mt Erebus is the magnificent view. Little wonder why this radio site has the best coverage of the McMurdo Sound region. This view is looking north-west over the edge of the sea ice. The blue wiggly stuff on the right hand side is open ocean, full of killer whales and other menaces from the deep.

    Hoopers_view_south.jpg (110190 bytes)
    People are always asking me for photos of landscapes, cutesy animals and other shite, which I hate. I like pictures of radios, antennas and other work. So this photo is a way to keep everyone happy. Mt Discovery is just below the 8-element UHF yagi while Scott Base is barely a single green pixel somewhere at the end of the Hut Point Peninsula, jutting out from the lower left corner.

    View_MtJJ_Thomson.jpg (149420 bytes)
    Alright, one last landscape photo. Thursday was a huge day work-wise. Got the three Dry Valleys sites installed including a lot of maintenance work along the way. This is the eastward view up the Taylor Valley from the radio site at Mt JJ Thomson.

    MtCerberus_solar_addition.jpg (158200 bytes)
    At Mt Cerberus we had enough ground time to complete a number of long outstanding jobs, including fitting a third 64W solar module. This site is due to have some heavy use this summer, plus in recent years has received barely enough sun at times to keep the batteries charged.

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    After two hours on the ground, our maintenance work was complete and the low cloud that had hung about all morning lifted, blessing us with a sunny afternoon. Still a bit nippy on site at -30C.

    Marble_Point_fuel_depot.jpg (112178 bytes)
    The helicopter fuel gauge was nearing E for enough, as opposed to F for uhhh.... not very much at all, so we called in to see the Americans at the Marble Point refuelling depot for 10 minutes. The blue flags indicate a fuel line. The wind sock indicates ground wind speed and direction to the many pilots landing daily for a fuel top up and a hot coffee.

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    A new job was the installation of a newly built linked repeater for the NIWA dive event at Cape Roberts. I'd done the signal path calculations but still needed to measure the signal level in a couple of places, plus work out the terrain that the repeater was going to be on so we could prepare suitable ground anchors. This is the view from the helicopter flying alongside the Couloir Cliffs at Cape Roberts.

    Grumps_Cape_Roberts_repeater.jpg (122291 bytes)
    Most of the 2014 winter crew departed Scott Base last week, though my predecessor, Grumps, stuck around for a while longer to give me a hand with some of the recent work. Plus as he'd been assembling the drop-in repeater for the last month or two, he wanted to see the actual installation of the new equipment. This is Grumps carrying the portable repeater box at the new site at Cape Roberts. The box contains a Tait T735 VHF duplex repeater linked to a Tait T754 UHF mobile radio for linking to the rest of the radio network back to Scott Base.

    Cape_Roberts_temporary_repeater.jpg (121567 bytes)
    After a couple of hours of set up and assembly, the temporary Cape Roberts repeater was complete and all working as expected. It's on top of a glacier, about 300m above the sea ice. The top surface is hard packed snow. To make anchors for the antenna mast stays, we dig a hole in the snow about a metre deep, fill a small canvas bag with snow, tie a rope around it then bury it in the hole. It's surprisingly sturdy.

    ZK-IDE_parking.jpg (149866 bytes)
    After an hours flight back home, I gave the pilot a hand to put the helicopter to bed. There was a storm forecasted for the following day, which came through stronger than expected. The helicopter needs to be tied to the ground at the McMurdo landing site, it's plugged in to keep things warm and the red covers keep snow from blowing inside the engine and rotor compartments.

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    In addition we have a reporter and camera operator from TV3 down at present; they've been doing live broadcasts from Scott Base most days. Here they are outside on the deck presenting something for the 6PM news yesterday evening.

  • 12/10/2014: Possibly not a good sign when memory loss of the past week and the lack of any new photos is happening already. But after a week of less than ideal weather, the flight from Christchurch finally arrived, bringing in around 17 new staff and contractors for various early season work. Good to see a few familiar faces in the bunch of arrivals.

    Among the arrivals were the three NZFS trainers, so one of the many focuses/distractions for the week has been ongoing fire training and fire drills. Although this training is important, it's pretty hard getting any significant work done when the fire alarm keeps going off, so you have to drop whatever you're doing, go to the fire assembly area, then invariably end up as part of the fire crew attending the training scenario, followed by an hour of tidy-up and debrief.

    Aside from that, much of the working week has been helping my predecessor, Grumps, finish various cabling jobs from winter. He's very methodical and does an excellent job of the cabling and associated documentation, so as a result, things really are in excellent shape.

    Weather wise it's been a mixed bag with everything from condition 1 weather (very strong winds and next to no visibility) on Thursday night, through to a magical bluebird day yesterday with warm temperatures (-15C) and little wind. I was planning a stroll out last night, but as always, I seem to get stuck on fire crew whenever the weather is nice.

    On the plus side, we had our first band room session on Friday night. A couple of our Scott Base crew can pump out some fairly decent vocals, so it looks quite probable we can get something semi-worthy together for IceStock at the end of December. As expected, our first practice session sounded pretty crap, but we've already got a bit of material to build on. It's surprisingly hard to do music/band stuff over summer, because nearly everyone is busy with something else after work, the McMurdo band room is always booked out at the only time you can get everyone together, or everyone is stuck on fire crew. However, despite these odds, I'll see what we can do. Fingers crossed.

    Rear_hitching_rail.jpg (108744 bytes)
    One of the base tasks jobs from yesterday was digging out the PB300 Pisten Bully (far right). This photo was before the condition 1 storm on Thursday. I forgot to get another photo afterwards, but it was just a big snow groomer shaped pile of white.

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    The typical view out the dining room window; blue sky up top with hazy fog over the sea ice blocking the view over the ice shelf towards White Island.

    Refurbished_SB_admin.jpg (96065 bytes)
    The refurbished administration area has just been completed. It's now looking like a modern open-plan office. With retro orange desk partitions. I'm sure they'll soon come back into fashion along with Grandma's 1960s orange formica dining room table.

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    Grumps has just completed the data and telephone cabling for this new office area. An outstanding tidy job as you can clearly see, a far cry from the previous birds nest which had evolved badly. The hardest part is keeping it in this condition. I've seen it too many times where you complete a job to perfection, then a year later you return to find someone has made a mess of adding other cables, or have just pulled it apart for no obvious reason.

    Becky-McMurdo_SB_panorama-10-10-14.jpg (125434 bytes)
    Becky is back again and this time she has an even flasher camera along with much more passion for photography than I'll ever have. Here's a brilliant panorama shot taken from the top of Observation Hill just after the condition 1 storm on Thursday. McMurdo Station on the left, Scott Base only just visible in the upper right. Crater Hill and the wind farm seen just right of centre. Click on the image to see it in higher resolution.

  • 5/10/2014: It's not taken long to settle back in to Scott Base, almost as though I've not been away for the last 11 months. It's actually quite good to be back. The place appears to be in great shape, the winter crew have done a great job.

    Celebrated my 5th consecutive birthday here on Wednesday, complete with bacon wrapped sausage rolls for morning tea and a chocolate and bacon cake in the shape of a pig for after dinner desert. The chefs really are too kind!

    Other than that it's been a relaxed start to the season. The handover with my predecessor, Grumps, was even swifter than expected. There haven't been too many changes over winter, aside from the upgrade/renovation of the administration area; so aside from that, everything is how I left it last October.

    The start of the new season also means time for the Antarctica Field Training refresher. This is nearly a full day of playing with tents, outdoor cookers, making snow shelters and acting out a few emergency scenarios. It was pretty low key, but quite a bit of fun thanks to the pleasant weather on the day.

    Righto, less typing, more photos....

    C17_getting_seated.JPG (147117 bytes)
    Boarding the C17 at Christchurch on Tuesday. Pick a seat and jump in. There were about 123 of us on the flight, mostly Americans bound for McMurdo Station.

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    Five hours later, the aircraft landed and everyone got out. We were instructed that it was a "hot landing" where they kept the jet engines running while unloading/reloading the aircraft. They said not to stop to take photos near the aircraft, else things could get sucked into the engines. Certainly was one of those moments where I wished there were a bunch of those annoying handbag-yapper dogs about.

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    We were met at the Pegasus airfield by some of the Scott Base winter staff. Into the Toyota Land Cruisers for the 40-minute ride to Scott Base. A nice day for it actually, turns out we had a short lived gap in the weather. Only -15C and no wind. Since then it's been mostly cloudy and quite a bit of heavy snow, so there's been no incoming flights; they've all been on weather delay since our arrival.

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    Approaching the green buildings of Scott Base from the road along the ice shelf. No idea what the while buildings in the foreground are for, they belong to the Americans.

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    A couple of days after arriving, it was time for the Antarctic Field Skills refresher. We had another fortunate break in the weather for most of the day. Even caught this rare glimpse of Mt Erebus which has otherwise been shrouded in heavy cloud all week.

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    So we headed out in a couple of Hagglunds for the field skills refresher. First up is a spot of lunch.

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    One of the scenarios we had was being caught in an unexpected wind storm. We had 15 minutes to build a make-shift emergency shelter using only a shovel. Here's Alec, me old china, who opted to build a kind of snow tomb.

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    Another scenario was something about remembering how to set up one of these tents in five minutes. Was probably four years ago since I last did, hence I was struggling to remember the details. Thought I was making a right arse of it until I looked around to see how badly everyone else was doing.

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    Yesterday was the annual winter to summer handover ceremony at the flagpole. The small winter flag is lowered and replaced by a big new summer one, hoisted by the youngest person on base. Followed afterwards by drinks and nibbles in the bar.