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)
September 2015
  • 27/9/2015: And that's about it; with the weather dependant arrival of the first flight of the summer season tomorrow, our season is all but over. Just a couple of weeks left for handover to the new arrivals; 18 tomorrow and 19 arriving on Tuesday.

    In my previous seasons it's been a bitter-sweet moment in time, but for whatever reasons this year; everyone is itching to get back home. Some of our American friends from McMurdo Station over the hill are due to depart as early as tomorrow. We had a final catch-up with them last night at the nearly traditional Carpenters' Workshop Party, which is often held in the last weekend of winter. It was a great night out with live music provided by some of the local American talent. Although perhaps the old guy trying to sing Black Sabbath's War Pigs could have done with a dozen or two less beers beforehand. Of course it was all free and there was a great turnout, so I can hardly complain.

    And speaking of pigs, the McMurdo Galley are rumoured to be having an extra special Sunday brunch with suckling roast pigs. I'm there! Just waiting on my laundry to finish then a quick 40 minute walk over the hill to the land of porky goodness.

    View_out_window_21-9-15.jpg (91063 bytes)
    The view out the window this week, looking north-west towards Crater Hill. The three 330kW turbines of the wind farm visible, upper left.

    Floor_repairs.jpg (175469 bytes)
    Darryn and Andy working on some way overdue repairs to a linkway floor and carpet replacement. Most of the floors feature access hatches in order to provide access to pipes and wiring in the floor space below. The floor hatches in this heavily used section of linkway have been on their last legs for more years than I can remember.

    PA_mute_relays.jpg (118288 bytes)
    One of my many brief projects this week, some PA speaker mute relays for the Field Centre. We have a system where you can dial a specific number from any telephone on base and have your voice piped all over the place, which is frequently used for general announcements and to locate people. Unfortunately if a PA speaker is too close to a telephone, you get audio feedback, so these relays decrease the volume of specific speakers when certain telephones are in use to prevent this.

    T7_engine_snow.jpg (141965 bytes)
    It's also that time of the year where the vehicles that have been cold parked outside for winter need to be towed into the vehicle workshop for thawing, service and grooming. As you can see, the vehicles are completely unusable when they're full of snow like this.

    USAP_roller.jpg (125107 bytes)
    They borrowed this large roller from the Americans for something, presumably to break up hard ice on the road, or for the coming earth works this summer as part of the continued Field Centre project work. Unfortunately the roller seems to have had a bit of a hard life; it needed a number of repairs which Steve the engineer saw to during the week.

  • 20/9/2015: A week left of the winter season. Today we're being kicked out of the staff accommodation block and into the visitor accommodation block so that the staff accommodation can be cleaned and prepared for the new people arriving next week.

    It's also that point in the season where some people snap out of their six month long daydream and suddenly realise all of the work they were supposed to do over winter instead of goofing off for much of the season. Suddenly they play the sob card and put it into the "it's someone else's problem next week" basket, or in some cases ask others to drop their workload to do the jobs they've been neglecting all season. Sorry, but your lack of effort doesn't make it my emergency. Unfortunately the winter work here is not well suited to those lacking self-motivation. I guess it varies each year based on the people involved, though I can't say this this year has been one of my favourites.

    Regardless of what does or doesn't get done, the end result is usually the same; soon after arrival at Scott Base from Christchurch, the management team like to do a big praise speech with words to the effect of "we're so happy on how well everyone has gotten along, the place is looking absolutely fabulous, clearly one of the best winters yet!". In reality there are a few people on the verge of killing each other, half the place is like a tip and aside from the separate Field Centre rebuild project, there's been little more than minimal maintenance completed. So what do you say at a time like this? Do you be an outright liar and agree on how great everything has gone, or do the morally correct thing of saying it like it really is? Or is it best to simply say nothing at all? Though in that case the people at the top can't recognise any room for improvment. In all fairness, they can't be expected to correct what they don't know about. Either way, I'm well overdue for a break.

    Moving_into_Q-Hut.jpg (89241 bytes)
    This is where I'll be moving in a few hours once people get out of bed mid-afternoon; one of the rooms in the visitor accommodation block known as "Q-Hut".

    Windy_sunday_out_window.jpg (70439 bytes)
    It's been a windier than normal week with strong winds most days, peaking at around 80kts (150km/hr). Temperatures ranging from around -30C to a surprisingly mild -16C. This is the view out my workshop window just now, the wind blown snow forms holes and ridges around solid objects.

    Cloudy_Erebus.jpg (87655 bytes)
    The weather isn't always a write-off, there's the odd nice day as well. Mt Erebus pictured above between the clouds.

    2M_distribution_frame.jpg (195870 bytes)
    2 megabit per second balanced E1 termination frames which transport multiplexed voice and data circuits. The frame allows you to manually cross-connect different circuits and monitor transmit and receive PCM (pulse coded modulation) streams.

    Store_and_forward_repeater.jpg (141815 bytes)
    One of yesterday's jobs was dusting off and getting the store and forward repeater operational for a science group who've decided they need wide area communications around their work site this summer at Cape Adare, which is approximately 800km north of Scott Base. The repeater consists of an Icom portable radio mounted in a box with a 20AHr sealed lead acid battery. The radio is connected to a 16-second speech recorder module. When the repeater receives a remote transmission, up to 16 seconds of speech is recorded. When the remote party stops transmitting the repeater radio automatically switches to transmit mode and re-plays what was recorded. This principle is also known as a simplex repeater. It didn't have a solar regulator either, so I fitted one to ensure the battery is correctly charged and maintained from the solar array.

  • 13/9/2015: Just a day over a month until we're due to be back home in New Zealand and I'm already thinking about hot barbeques and cold beers. Everyone else here is as equally excited to be thinking of seeing friends and family again and daily discussions are around what food they're most looking forward to.

    Two weeks until the first flights of main body arrive, and as usual there's still much work to be done. People back home often ask what I do in my spare time. The reality is that there's never spare time. There's always something that needs fixed, rebuilt, maintained, cleaned, labelled, redone from scratch or designed and built. Plus an endless stream of documentation to write and maintain, and much, much more.

    Practically all of my work this week has been installing and commissioning the new satellite bearer equipment, which essentially allows a wider data bandwidth. Surprisingly enough, there have been very few issues so far and it's ready for testing to begin on Monday. I've even managed to catch up on the two weeks of lost time due to a week of weather delays and McMurdo cargo losing a pallet of urgent freight for a week.

    Sunrise_beside_Erebus.jpg (47788 bytes)
    We're still gaining around 20 minutes of daylight each day. It really is a nice time of the season with the brilliant sunrises and sunsets daily. Sunrise today at 7:50AM; setting at 5:50PM. The photo above is of the sun rising above the western shoulder of Mt Erebus.

    MtDiscovery_sunset.jpg (53682 bytes)
    This is the sun setting on Mt Discovery to the south of us, the Scott Base sea ice pressure ridges in the foreground. Thanks to Andy for the photos.

    Mogas_trailer.jpg (144128 bytes)
    The Mogas (petrol for cold temperatures) is stored in a double walled aluminium trailer on a concrete bund to contain any potential fuel spills. There's a lot of work that goes into preventing even minor drips of fuel from contaminating the Antarctic environment.

    New_satellite_modems.jpg (120804 bytes)
    The new Comtech CDM-760 satellite modems and redundancy switch that I installed this week. There is one working modem and one spare which is automatically switched into service if a failure is detected with the primary modem.

    IF_and_data_switch.jpg (134535 bytes)
    Another part of the satellite modem redundancy switch system is change-over of the intermediate frequency paths (140MHz) and the data paths. 140MHz radio energy from the modem transmit port is up-converted to around 6000MHz (C-band) for transport to New Zealand over satellite.

    New_IP_equipment.jpg (160969 bytes)
    More satellite infrastructure, the new equipment lower left. One of the blue boxes replaces both the DCME (speech compressor) and echo canceller equipment above it. When the new equipment is operational, the older equipment will be returned to New Zealand to be re-used elsewhere such as the Chatham Islands.

  • 6/9/2015: It's no surprise that many readers have picked up that things are getting a little cabin-feverish here. And of course they're right. Each week is mostly a copy of the previous week, with subtle differences thrown in for a bit of a laugh.
    You too can now experience a first-hand Scott Base winter using the handy guide to daily activites below:

    1. Every morning between 7:00 and 7:30 get woken up by someone slamming doors/drawers and stamping down the corridor.
    2. Shower, cup of coffee, start work at 8AM.
    3. See which science event has Emailed overnight to request stuff that we don't have, or asking me to do something which I won't be here for.
    4. Answer phone call from someone complaining that a certain phone no longer works (because someone has damaged again it with static electricity despite there being a large sign beside the phone to discharge yourself before touching the phone).
    5. Deal with winter jobs of checking/fixing stuff.
    6. Get annoyed with the company computer system again due to a repeat of the same problems you've logged many months/years ago which still aren't fixed.
    7. Morning tea at 10AM, time for tasty treats.
    8. Go and fix next round of problems with the wind farm data network, which is usually a repeat of some previous problem that can't easily be fixed because there is basically no support for any of it and no documentation on anything.
    9. Work through lunch because so far you've achieved practically nothing useful all morning.
    10. Re-do someone's previous job from scratch because it was originally done several years ago to the minimal possible standard with the minimum amount of effort and as a result it's a total mess and has never worked properly.
    11. Write lots of technical documentation which no-one is ever likely to read.
    12. Go to dinner between 6:00 and 6:30, bump into the gym grunters looking all hot and sweaty who ask why I've not spent the past three hours with them in the gym; explain that this is the middle of the work day and that if they put a tenth of their gym effort into their jobs then they might actually get something achieved.
    13. See if the chef's dinner efforts exceed that of a large pan filled with tomato sauce with four small chunks of meat floating in it and decide whether to skip dinner or not.
    14. Wash chef's kitchen dishes and clean the kitchen.
    15. Watch music videos while getting drunk to the point that you have a fighting chance of being able to sleep through the constant door/drawer slamming and stamping down the corridor, else you'll get no sleep and end up becoming an unproductive zombie the following day.

    • Repeat the above from Monday through to Saturday, with the inclusion on Saturday that you attend the base meeting at 3:15PM for an hour, followed by the remainder of the afternoon doing jobs that other people get paid for but don't want to do.

    • On Sunday, expect to have a day off but instead be regularly interrupted with people wanting you to do stuff for them. Consider getting out for a walk somewhere to escape this but remember that you're stuck on fire crew again so can't leave.

    Reading between the lines, this is essentially the same as most people's daily lives back home. The exception here is that you're working six day weeks and there are no holidays other than New Year's Day and Christmas, so it becomes awfully relentless. If you could have the odd break away from it all, it would make the day-to-day dealing with the same crap each day not quite as bad.

    And it's not just me. This late in the season everyone is feeling the same relentless pressure. It's only three weeks to go until the new arrivals at main body arrive at the start of the summer season, and hopefully around five weeks until I'm back in Christchurch enjoying a barbeque in the back yard while sitting in the sun and actually feeling warm for a rare change.

    New_satellite_infrastructure.jpg (148537 bytes)
    At least I have been working on something semi-interesting this week. This is the start of the new satellite infrastructure which I started installing this week. The satellite bearer change to IP project is likely to run throughout September.

    Field_centre_lab1_tables.jpg (123252 bytes)
    The Field Centre rebuild project is quickly nearing completion. With the flooring complete and the new furniture being installed now, it's looking surprisingly good. Pictured above is the Lab 1, the largest of the three new science labs with new furniture being fitted.

    Field_centre_lab2_complete.jpg (123757 bytes)
    Lab 2 is for chemical handling as it contains an emergency eye wash station and decontamination shower.

    Field_centre_lab3_complete.jpg (110678 bytes)
    I've got no idea what the intended use of Lab 3 will be. Presumably something that doesn't require any water or basins. This lab is dry aside from a hand washing station.

    Field_centre_lobby_complete.jpg (144717 bytes)
    This is the completed Field Centre lobby, or corridor, or whatever it's called. Lab 1 on the right side with the 'Pee Lab' left of centre and the sewer holding and pumping room to the right of that.

    Discovery_Hut_outside.jpg (182866 bytes)
    While some of us were busy shovelling snow on Friday afternoon, some of the others took the easier option of taking photos of Discovery Hut at Hut Point beside McMurdo Station.