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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October 2015
  • 17/10/2015: Back home for two days and it still feels great. A group of us met at the Antarctica NZ office on Thursday morning for clothing returns, morning tea and final farewells. When we were finished, everyone stood in a group just kind of blankly staring at nothing. Then the reality suddenly set in; after a year of constant routine and knowing what was on the work schedule, we were all suddenly free and no-one knew what to do. Though it didn't take long to draw up ideas for a barbeque and beers at my place that evening and invite everyone along.

    I think returning to NZ like this after a year, for the third time, is somehow easier than it used to be. You know that you're going to feel awkward being around many other people, traffic, trees and other things you've not seen in over a year. And because you're expecting some level of anxiety, you're somehow able to cope with it much easier.

    Everyone has now gone their separate ways; no doubt I'll bump into some of our 2014-2015 crew again. There are certainly a number of people I'll keep in touch with.

    And that's it for another season at Scott Base. Would I do another? Who knows. I do find that working for a solid 12 months with no actual holidays is wearing thin, so I may consider a winter only contract (February to October) due to the much more relaxed pace of winter. It's only when you're at the forefront of yet another summer season that you recall how hectic they are.

    And a final thanks to all my friends and family who kept me sane with regular contact, photos, phone calls and some great beers. Every little bit helped a lot!

    Until next time?
    Anthony Hoffman.

    Last_view_of_Scott_Base.jpg (59293 bytes)
    This was the scene at 1:30PM on Wednesday, walking out the Scott Base locker room door for the last time. For most of us, it was anything but a sad moment, we were all itching to get back home to NZ.

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    Looking out the back window of the vehicle as we set off to Pegasus Airfield. This is the view south, Black Island seen in the distance.

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    Our convoy of two Toyota Land Cruisers departing Scott Base for the 30-40 minute ride to Pegasus Airfield.

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    As we approached Pegasus, we saw the US Air Force C17 approaching and landing on the ice runway. Who'd have guessed it would be so exciting?

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    We arrived at the airfield in time to see the C17 parking up for passengers to depart and cargo to be unloaded.

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    The mixture of NZ and American passengers were loaded onto the Kress for transport back to Scott Base and McMurdo Station.

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    The American cargo handlers unloaded a couple of shipping containers out of the C17.

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    Meanwhile, we waited while the C17 was unloaded before the eight of us from Scott Base and seven Americans climbed on.

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    Finally we were ushered on. Pick any seat you like, the plane is returning to NZ practically empty.

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    The only cargo on the plane was a small pallet of our checked in luggage. The five hour flight to Christchurch went smoothly up until we reached the passport control desk at Christchurch airport at 9PM. All the lights were off and no-one was about. A man told us all just to skip the entire passport/immigration thing and just go. We were just about to leave the airport when they found some customs officers, so we had to go back and do the official thing.

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    And the following afternoon; enjoying long awaited craft beers and barbecued bratwurst from my favourite German delicatessen.

  • 15/10/2015: We landed on time in Christchurch last night at 9PM. It really is brilliant to be back home!

    Clothing returns and stuff this morning followed by beers and barbecues.

    I'll add some photos and more in a day or two....

  • 11/10/2015: What more can I say other than I'm pleased that we're on the final home run. Most of our remaining winter crew of 14 people are due to return to Christchurch tomorrow. Myself and a few others with more work to go are expected to be here until Wednesday. Weather permitting of course.

    Everyone asks what I'll do when I get back. First up are some beers and barbeques of course. Plus catching up with many friends, the Fleetwood Mac concert in November and hopefully not too much else for now.

    With the summer flag ceremony held yesterday afternoon, signalling the official handover from the winter to summer crew, it really does feel like time to move on.

    All going well, my next and final update here will be from my home in Christchurch.

    Shannon_removing_winter_flag.jpg (92082 bytes)
    The tradition is for the youngest person on base to perform the seasonal flag changeover. For the ceremony yesterday, this was the job of Shannon, one of the new Communications Operators.

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    And this was the new summer flag seeing some action yesterday after it was hoisted.

    Grumps_by_containers.jpg (95249 bytes)
    For the last few years, Grumps and I have been doing alternate years in this role at Scott Base. He's a telephone systems technician by trade while I'm a radio communications/electronics engineer. So here he is in all his bearded glory, settling in for the next 12 months at Scott Base.

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    Among the familiar faces that arrived this week is Anthony Powell, renowned for his Antarctic photos and documentaries. I understand he's spending the coming 12 months at Scott Base, partially to work on filming projects for National Geographic and his own video projects, plus some 'special project' work for Antarctica NZ. Yes, he has significantly greater interest and skill in photography than I'll ever have. And I'll bet his posh camera is worth more than my second hand $70 Canon PowerShot A410.

    Wet_Lab_fire_drill.jpg (59928 bytes)
    It's also the fire training time of the year. Three trainers from the NZ Fire Service are on site this week to conduct several fire drills per day as part of fire training for the new crew. The scenario shown above was a mock fire in the Wet Lab.

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    One of my jobs this week was planning of some summer work on the fibre and power cable that runs to the Satellite Earth Station at Arrival Heights, which isn't what's shown here. This is on the way to the Earth Station; seen above is T-Site with the wind farm, plus the frozen Star Lake seen right of centre.

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    Yet another photo of Mt Erebus, seen from the 5km cable route from Scott Base to the Satellite Earth Station.

  • 4/10/2015: I can finally see light at the end of the tunnel, but knowing my luck, it's probably a train. As expected, a great deal has been happening this week, starting with the arrival of the first summer flight on Monday as scheduled. In true Antarctic fashion, the weather soon took a turn for the worse, resulting in a number of flight cancellations over the week, though the second half of the new crew eventually arrived on Wednesday evening.

    The chef reminded me that I had another birthday on Thursday, making me now 37 years old, also my sixth consecutive birthday here. The kitchen made a honey Jack Daniels layer cake, which was delicious. I'd share a photo of the cake, but it was devoured before I could get the camera out. Besides, you probably know what a cake looks like, and everyone hates photos of food posted on the internet.

    Despite the insane influx of people this week, bringing staff numbers from our winter crew of 14 to a total of 51, it is quite fun to see so many people that are eager and excited. I'll be eager and excited too in around 10 days when I hope to be back home in Christchurch!

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    This was the scene at 2:30PM at Pegasus Airfield on Monday. This US Air Force C17 made the first touchdown of the summer season.

    C17_offloading.jpg (57393 bytes)
    All the excited new people getting off the plane. For many of them, this is their first footsteps in Antarctica. I was once this excited back in January this year after some friends in Christchurch sent me a bottle of 8-Wired iStout and Epic Imperium. Ahhh yes; that was indeed a great day.... Before I drool off into dream land again, I'll point out there were 18 or so NZ folks on the flight plus over 80 Americans bound for McMurdo Station. The Americans have the red coats, the Scott Base people wear orange and black.

    Broken_down_Case.jpg (226557 bytes)
    When Lex and I walked to McMurdo Station last Sunday to catch up with a few friends and enjoy some suckling roast pig (which happened to be delicious!), we remembered how many problems the Americans have been having with their vehicles. Of their winter fleet of heavy machinery, 50 or so machines, they had about three machines that were not broken down. Unfortunately many of the new vehicles that have recently replaced the older ones don't appear to be very reliable in the cold. The older mechanical machines used to just work, but these modern computer equipped machines seem to have no end of issues. The Case tractor pictured above is part of the broken down fleet, they keep the blade up so that it's able to be towed.

    Kress_parked_in_gap.jpg (144341 bytes)
    Not sure if the Kress is broken down or just parked in the middle of the road. It's yet another one of these newer vehicles which are generally in one of two states; either broken down or about to break down.

    LDB_hut_defrost.jpg (136033 bytes)
    The Americans are defrosting portable buildings and things that have been stored away during the winter. The problem with storing things such as these outside is that any tiny gap in the building means that the entire thing fills up completely with wind-blown snow. One way to remove it is to cut a hole in the side of the building and jam a hose blowing hot air into it. The problem of course is that the snow turns to water, which runs out the bottom and freezes into a solid waterfall, as you can see above.

    Grumps_fire_signs.jpg (148964 bytes)
    This is Grumps, my replacement. He and I have been doing alternate years since 2013, so he's back here for another year. He's also the fire chief, which somehow chews up a lot more time than you'd expect. I've been spending the odd few minutes of handover time with him in between him making fire crew signs and the likes.

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    Talking to my uncle and cousin from Australia yesterday, they mentioned that they really wanted to see a wildlife photo. I had a dig around and remembered that I don't really have much. Of course I find machinery and electronics infinitely more interesting than penguins and things. But I found the photo above that I'd copied from someone back in 2010. They're emperor penguins walking by one of the Americans' fuel lines. The blue flags warn vehicles of fuel lines so that they don't run into the pipes and create an environmental disaster of Exxon Valdez type proportions.