Sunday, December 5, 1999

Y2K: Is Antarctica ready?

Published in the Antarctic Sun

A thousand years ago, some Europeans feared the world would end with the first millennium. Now, at the close of this millennium, concern has spread to all levels of societies around the world. Some people say the end is near.

Others seem less alarmed but forewarn of gas, cash and other shortages as people hoard supplies they fear will become unavailable.

In Antarctica, and in our support structure back in the U.S., there is relative calm. While it’s likely that there will be problems in some areas of the world where technology lags, the U.S. Antarctic Program has spent over a million dollars since 1997 to ensure that the remote, resource-limited stations in Antarctica will not have problems.

“Basically anything that plugs in or has a battery backup was assessed in some way,” said Beth Bradley, ASA’s Year 2000 project manager.

While many people are concerned about computers, Bradley said, they are not the primary concern with the Antarctic program.

The problem is caused by confusion in pieces of electronics which have internal clocks. If they fail to properly recognize January 1 as the year 2000 and not 1900, problems could arise. In addition, the fact that next year is a leap year compounds the issue.

With power plants, a TV and radio station, medical equipment, and science equipment, as well as the research vessels and the ubiquitous GPS units, Antarctica is a very technology-dependent place.

“We have more than most companies,” Bradley said.

It is perhaps a blessing, then, that some of the equipment in use is so old. Korean War-vintage radios, for example, have no internal clock, and thus aren’t expected to have any problems, Bradley said.

One problem area Bradley didn’t anticipate was the monitoring system on the heat traces, which warm the outdoor utility pipes at McMurdo and the Pole. If it hadn’t been fixed, the monitoring computer would have failed, potentially freezing all of the pipes at both stations.

It’s not just equipment in Antarctica which was scrutinized. Also examined were the resources of organizations with which ASA and NSF work.

The Air National Guard, Aviation Technical Services, the U.S. Coast Guard, vendors and suppliers of equipment, and subcontractors, as well as the New Zealand and Chilean governments, were all checked for potential problems.

“If anyone thinks of anyone who touches our system in any way I’ll call them and talk to them,” Bradley said.

The computer systems have also been thoroughly checked. Some equipment has been replaced, according to McMurdo computer supervisor Scott Ferguson. Some software has been upgraded or replaced as well, Ferguson said.

Protecting network operations is most important, and involves the checking of all computers that arrive at McMurdo.

“Before it gets attached to the network we test it,” Ferguson said.

E-mail and telephone connections are made via satellite link directly with stations in the United States. Ferguson does not anticipate any problems with those connections. E-mail from Christchurch takes a long route through a number of connections on the ground and in space, but Ferguson is confident those connections will remain intact.

Ferguson also noted that there are multiple methods of communication available. If telephones, for example, do not function properly, radio and e-mail connections will still be possible.

Across the board, Bradley said, equipment has been upgraded or replaced. The project has also required a careful inventory of all items in use throughout the program, which was never fully done before.

“It’s really forced us to update and take a closer look at what we have,” Bradley said.

Now the project is in its final testing phase, verifying readiness of all equipment for the new year

“We continue to test and retest,” Bradley said.

Fifty people will work overnight on New Year’s Eve to monitor equipment and make sure everything goes smoothly.

A team in Denver will be awake early to support the Christchurch offices, Pole and McMurdo. The team will then wait for the new year to turn at Palmer Station and in Chile.

Denver’s own new year will come next, and then an hour later Port Hueneme will head into the year 2000. Only then will the Denver team be done for the day.

Bradley is anticipating some small problems, she said, but none with critical equipment. The NSF says it has a high level of confidence the transition to the new year will happen without an
interruption to science research or support.