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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September 2013
  • 29/9/2013: Following the final preparations for the new summer crew arriving on Thursday, it's a sure sign that our season is nearly at an end. I can't say that I'm looking forward to the inevitable interruptions to our peace and quiet. By this time next week we'll have gone from 12 people on station to over 50; providing the weather remains calm and all of the flights proceed as scheduled. Even the experts seem to be unable to accurately predict the weather at the best of times, so who knows. September is often very cold and windy, while it's been relatively mild to date.

    They also had the final party of winter last night at the McMurdo Carpenter's workshop. My band performed a set of live music which had a few initial issues of the sound mixing being all messed up and the battery in our fiddle player's amplifier going flat in mid-performance. Went fine after some emergency battery replacements. Top tip of the day is always fit fresh batteries prior to a live performance.

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    It had been a while since I'd inspected the fibre optic and power cable route between Scott Base and the satellite station. These cables are elevated out of the moving snow and ice pack on metal stands to minimise damage to the cable. The weather forecast for Friday was light winds, so an ideal time to do the job. But on top of the hill it was gusting to 40 knots. Never trust the forecast.

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    The Satellite Earth Station is the ball-shaped radome visible on the hill above the ice pool in the foreground.

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    Last weekend we moved out of our staff accommodation bedrooms where we'd been for the last 12 months and into the 'Q-Hut' science events accommodation area. These rooms are 3-4 times bigger than the staff accommodation rooms and can accommodate 5-6 people each. Bad news if you have a snorer, which usually happens.

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    Two years ago the bar had purchased many cases of apple cider. Unfortunately it was not a popular selling product, so they were just going to chuck it out. Fortunately the culture of recycling and sustainability is very much a part of Scott Base life, so not wanting to create unnecessary waste; we invited the Americans to a 'flippy cup' tournament. This is a silly drinking game which involves drinking cider from paper cups, placing the empty cup on the edge of the table and flipping it with your finger so that it lands upside-down on the table. At the end of the night everyone was a winner thanks to this creative recycling scheme.

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    For reasons unknown, I've included a photo of travelling down the road to Scott Base. The American 'fleet ops' department make a superb job of keeping the roads smooth and level while removing sections of hard slippery ice.

  • 22/9/2013: More of the same old thing of finalising various jobs this week. Would be nice to leave the new guys with something other than a confusing mess.

    The weather people had some interesting facts to share; if our present September daily average temperature continues the trend of -19C, we'll have the warmest September on record. September is generally very cold and windy, though we're enjoying temperatures above minus 8C at times and there have been comparatively few days of strong winds. Yesterday also marked the point where we have more daylight hours than dark hours, with sunrise at 6:46AM and setting at 6:51PM. The final sunset is three weeks away, 1:06AM on the 23rd of October, after which it'll be 24 hour daylight for the duration of the summer season.

    The final 'winter' party of the season is scheduled for next Saturday evening at the McMurdo Carpenter's Workshop. The Americans usually run this popular 'Carp Shop Party' event in either August or September, which essentially consists of live music and beer; sometimes with an art and crafts show beforehand. This will also be the final gig for our band, so we're working on a few new songs at present which we hope to be ready for next Saturday. It's only around three weeks until various winter people begin leaving the ice.

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    Last night we were invited to the "Boss Hog barbecue" at the McMurdo Firehouse; world famous on Ross Island. For some reason I didn't take any photos of the most delicious steaks I've ever dined on, but here's a picture of the fire truck inside the Firehouse. It's kept warm inside and ready to go at short notice. The Americans have a dedicated fire crew who perform a 24 hour watch. Apparently they've attended nine minor station fires this season, including a clothes dryer fire and ceiling fire caused by a faulty electric light fitting.

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    "Quick, someone call me an ambulance!" "OK, you're an ambulance."

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    In case you're still mystified, this is Boss Hog; and he sure knows how to barbeque a good steak. His last name is Hogberg and he's the fire chief/boss, hence the name. I did ask if they had a Bo Duke or Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane working there. He didn't seem nearly as amused as I was.

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    The wind farm continues to do its thing of producing up to 1MW of electricity. One of the turbines has been plagued with issues this winter, requiring Molly, the Scott Base electrician, to spend a considerable amount of time to keep it operating. The U-shaped kink in the steel fuel line at the bottom of the photo is for thermal expansion/contraction strain relief. This pipeline carries fuel from the McMurdo bulk fuel store and after transitioning to flexible hose, carries fuel to aircraft at the Pegasus Airfield and William's Airfield.

  • 15/9/2013: With only three weeks until the influx of main body arriving in the first week of October, the focus has been on sorting out what I won't have time to complete and write up enough detailed documentation so that the next guy doing my job can easily pick up from where I left off from various projects. It feels quite underwhelming to have spent so much time and dedication throughout the week and all I've got to show for my efforts are some sets of schematic sheets, diagrams and notes. There's an idea, perhaps I'll just order a heap of expensive random components that don't relate to anything and not do any documentation at all. Oh wait, that's what they did last winter. Yes, being stuck here for a year is guaranteed to make you more cynical than usual.

    Perhaps my other crowning achievement for the week was dominating the sewing machine of terror. Let's face facts; most people have no idea how to do clothing repairs more advanced than using a staple gun and a half-arsed job with a needle and thread while pretending you know what you're doing. Without a doubt, I am part of this majority. So all winter I've been saving up my clothing repairs with the hope that the new AHT conservators also do textiles conservation, which can sometimes be the case, then have them mend all my clothing. But unfortunately the new conservators have as much sewing non-ability as I do, plus I was rapidly running out of clothes to wear that didn't have gaping holes in the arse. So yesterday I mustered enough courage to tackle the much feared Scott Base sewing machine. My last use of such a machine was more than 20 years ago during home economics class at school, but I quickly figured out the basics and proudly had it running properly without too much effort and with zero fatalities. First job, a pair of ripped shorts. I thought I was making a brilliant job until the final inspection revealed that I'd sewed the inside pockets together, and also sewed the back of the shorts to the front. Tip #1, invert all of the pockets first and regularly keep an eye on what's being stitched together. Long story short, many successful clothing repairs! So long as no one looks too close, or notices that I couldn't work out how to change thread colour to match the fabric, I'm good to go.

    This week's photos are all from Becky, the station manager who somehow manages to get out while the weather is nice and take some decent photos. It always seems to work out that I'm forever stuck on fire crew while the weather is half decent.

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    Farewell to Antarctica NZ CEO Lou Sanson, who celebrated his last day with the company this week. He's moving to an upper management position with the NZ Department of Conservation. Here's a photo of Lou by the Scott Base sign a couple of weeks ago during his final visit here.

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    This is the Australian owned Airbus A319 aircraft that performed the three spring flights between Christchurch and Pegasus Airfield at the beginning of the month. It's very comfortable for passengers, but has very limited cargo carrying abilities when compared to the Boeing C-17 Globemaster. The stairs seen above were a cause of major issues. Apparently there was some kind of bridge that went between the aircraft door and the top of the stairs, but it was nowhere to be found. Fortunately they discovered this before the flight arrived, so the McMurdo carpenters made a speedy job of making a replacment bridge.

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    The Americans continue to use Ivan the Terra Bus for passenger transport between McMurdo and Pegasus Airfield, a journey of approximately 40km. They had planned to retire Ivan a year or two ago, but they've had numerous troubles with the large new vehicles they bought in 2010.

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    Light winds and moist air creates a thick sheet of ground fog on the ice shelf. Mt Terror in the distance, the sea ice pressure ridges in the foreground.

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    Another stunning panoramic photo from Becky, click on the image above to see the wide view from Crater Hill. In the foreground, Observation Hill is on the left, McMurdo Station bottom centre and Arrival Heights on the right side.

  • 8/9/2013: After a week of people movements we're now down to 12 on station. The flight last Sunday delivered the two new Heritage Trust staff plus three visitors who ended up getting stuck here a few days longer than expected due to the typical weather delays. The three departing conservators had their wishes granted for one more day here in order to pack up and get things tidied - which I thought was unusual as they had known the departure date at least a month or two in advance, so not sure why they had so many overdue last minute things on the agenda. But anyway, now that the bustle of activity from the week has calmed down, it's time to enjoy an overdue relaxing Sunday.

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    Monday night's barbeque in the vehicle workshop to welcome the visitors and new conservators went down a treat.

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    One of the benefits of using the welding bay for the barbeque is that the extract fan avoids setting off the fire alarm. Graeme also discovered that the oxy-acetylene cutting torch adds that instant flame grilled touch to the food.

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    On the rare occasions it's not too cloudy; the daily sunsets remain a pleasant welcome to the morning. We're now at the point of 'normal' daylight hours - sunrise at 8:30AM, setting at 5:20PM. It'll be 24 hour sunlight again in six weeks.

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    Mike took advantage of the clear sky and light winds last weekend to go kite skiing on the sea ice out the front of Scott Base. White Island visible in the background.

    iStout_chilling.JPG (86059 bytes)
    Meanwhile, I received news that it was 8-Wired craft brewery week at Pomeroy's Old Brewery Inn in Christchurch this week. Fortunately I had one bottle of 8-Wired Big Smoke left to remotely celebrate the occasion. This tasty little fellow went out the door for a 20-minute chilling before dinner time. With a huge thanks to Andi, Paula, Dave and Matt I've had a generous supply of delicious craft beer since the start of winter, enough for one bottle per week.

  • 1/9/2013: As I write this, the first flight of the three 'Springfly' flights is due to land at Pegasus airfield in around 40 minutes. We've got a couple of managers visiting from Christchurch who are here for a four day visit. We also have two new AHT conservators who will stay until late in summer and will be working at Captain Scott's Discovery Hut, located next to McMurdo Station. The remaining three conservators here have a rushed three day hand over before they depart on Thursday; the final flight until the main body flights begin in the first week of October.

    Meanwhile, it's been work as usual at Scott Base. Many people have been working hard on general cleaning before the managers arrive today, though generally the place was already in pretty good shape.

    I've had a busy week myself with the live music we performed at McMurdo last night as a farewell party for quite a few of their staff who are leaving either today or over the coming week. The performance itself went well, loads of fun. The practice sessions during the week got a little interesting. We had one final session on Friday evening, though it was extremely stormy through to Saturday afternoon. Got there OK on Friday night, but as partly expected, I got stuck at McMurdo for the night as the weather was unsafe for outside travel. No worries, camped out in the bedroom of one of my band members. Was kind of hard to sleep; I didn't realise they had opening windows in most of their rooms, and many of these leak. So when there are strong winds, it howls through the window all night. Then in morning you need to shovel the snow out of the bedroom. Wow, I didn't know we had it so good in comparison here at Scott Base.

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    Two weeks after the first sunrise on the 19th of August, we finally saw sunshine for the first time this morning at 11 o'clock. Although it's risen over the hills recently, we've been surrounded in thick cloud over the past week, which has finally cleared leaving us with a spectacular start to September.

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    After four months of darkness, everyone was delighted by the first sightings of the sun. Even the usually sleepy Tim the Hobbit showed a rare glimpse of excitement as he took photos of the phenomenon that is taken for granted anywhere else in the world.

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    Not that I could resist taking a few touristy first sunshine photos either. After spending a dismal few months in darkness, you tend to forget how nice the place looks on a clear day like this.

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    The clear morning made Black Island and Mt Discovery appear unusually close, they're actually around 30-40km away.

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    Since the pressure ridges on the sea ice have re-formed on as they always do at this time of year, they're now open for recreational walks. I happened to come across a bit of American wildlife walking through the buckled sea ice last Sunday. The Americans need to be part of a guided tour group such as this one.

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    I snapped this crappy photo of Scott Base while strolling in the pressure ridges. This is the same kind of cloudy sky that's been over us for the past week, hiding the sunshine.

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    Damian the chef has a flash camera which takes nice panorama photos, such as this one of a Hagglund on his recent trip to Cape Evans. Click on the photo to see the full thing.