Scott Base – New Zealand’s permanent station in Antarctica – was officially opened on January 20, 1957. It was originally designed for only a short life – as the Ross Island base for the British Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE). Scott Base was also used for science activities associated with International Geophysical Year (IGY) between 1 July 1957 and 31 December 1958. However, it wasn’t long before the value of Antarctic research – beyond the IGY – was recognised and Scott Base has supported New Zealand’s scientific endeavours in the Antarctic ever since.
Scott Base now has the capacity to accommodate up to 85 people. As well as housing safety and logistical equipment vital for survival in Antarctica, it also houses specialised laboratory spaces, computer network and satellite communications links, engineering and mechanical workshops and most recently, the Hilary Field Centre, which houses supplies, vehicles and an on-site gym.
Between 325 and 375 people, from a range of New Zealand and overseas research institutions and other agencies pass through Scott Base during the Antarctic season (October – February).
The formative years
The idea of building a New Zealand base in Antarctica was first mooted in 1953, following the announcement of the International Geophysical Year programme and the British plan to cross the Antarctic Continent. The polar crossing required support bases in both the Weddell Sea and the Ross Sea. British explorer and expedition leader, Dr Vivian Fuchs approached Sir Edmund Hillary to lead the Ross Sea group in establishing the Ross Island base and laying supply lines.
New Zealand became officially involved in 1955 when Prime Minister Sidney Holland announced that the Government would support New Zealand’s involvement in the Trans Antarctic Expedition and agreed to provide initial funding of £50,000 for the project.
And so the almost logistically impossible task was set – to design, construct, transport and establish a base in Antarctica in less than 12 months. Frank Ponder from the Ministry of Works’ was given the unenviable task of designing and constructing base buildings – within a 10-month deadline.
Designing and building Scott Base
The huts contained:
There were also two smaller huts (G and H Huts), which contained magnetometers and three seismographs.
Assembly in New Zealand
Preparing the site in Antarctica
On 12 January, railway sleepers and a raft of Oregon pine were laid to create a platform upon which A hut would eventually stand. It was impossible to use a concrete foundation because of the cold. As each panel was fitted, the joins were sealed with tape and just before the final panel was fitted, the heavy stove, radio transmitters, water tank and snow-melter were positioned inside because when assembled, the doorway was too narrow to allow these items through.
Upon completion of A hut – considered the most important of all the base buildings – a short ceremony took place. In attendance was Edmund Hillary, Captain Harold Ruegg, Administrator of the Ross Dependency, Captain Kirkwood from the Endeavour, Admiral Dufek, Captain Weiss from the USNS Pte John R Towle, photographers and journalists.
The flagpole was historically significant as it had been recovered from Hut Point where it had been placed by Scott on his expedition of 1902–04. It was presented to Hillary by Admiral Dufek.
The TAE Hut
In 2001, as part of a paper to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), A Hut was renamed the TAE/IGY Hut, in recognition of the original purpose for the hut and Scott Base, and for its importance in supporting both of these events.
The TAE hut is one of three remaining original Scott Base buildings. It stands as a living museum, still stocked with many of the items left by Hillary and his men. Now – as often in the past – it provides a quiet haven for Scott Base staff wanting a break from communal base living. The two other original huts (G and H huts) still house the original scientific instruments from the IGY.
1957 to the present day
Following the expansion that had occurred in 1959-60, with the construction of a hangar, powerhouse and the installation of a dark room, Scott Base underwent a major 130,000 pounds sterling redevelopment in the ensuing years. The extensions to Scott Base included science facilities and sleeping quarters, a heated garage, mess upgrade and improved waste disposal system as well as better toilet and ablution facilities. There was also a new administration centre, which housed the leader’s office, communications room, recreation/reception area and the Post Office. The former TAE garage became Q Hut – to be used as the principle food storage area.
By the summer of 1962, the building and fitting out was completed and Scott Base was now a station consisting of 11linked buildings in the main area, with 5 separate dedicated science buildings.
There was little need for anything other than maintenance now, yet a major transformation of Scott Base was signaled in 1965. The iconic orange, yellow and corrugated iron mix of hues and textures was to be repainted – to the now-symbolic Cotswold or RBT (Robert B Thomson) green, aptly named because according to Mr Thomson it was “a reversal of the English white cottages in green fields”. This colour has changed slightly over time and the Base is now painted in Chelsea cucumber (Resene 6-071).
Antarctica had traditionally been a male domain and facilities at Scott Base were not considered ‘suitable’ for women. However, following an unprecedented number of applications from females to work on base or in the field, 1968 saw New Zealand’s first female visitor to Antarctica; Marie Darby, a zoologist from Canterbury Museum. Scott Base’s first official female resident was technician Pamela Young, who worked at the base during the summer of 1969-70.
Upon entering its second decade, Scott Base underwent a further transformation in the 1967-68 summer. New, larger windows, new signage and entranceway gave the base a welcoming air to the many visitors and distinguished guests passing through its corridors.
In December 1970, in light of the increasing number of scientists working in Antarctica, the DSIR announced its desire to rebuild Scott Base over the coming decade. Extensions to existing buildings and rebuilding projects began in earnest. Rooms were painted and ‘old’ ways of doing things were changed – environmental awareness was stirred in Antarctica, which saw old dumps blasted and cleaned up, a high temperature incinerator installed and an environmental code of conduct issued.
The huts and buildings on base underwent a systematic, 5-year rebuilding process, which began in 1976. It would extend the footprint of Scott Base by 50% and extend its life expectancy by 25 years. The budget for the project was set at $25 million.
The Q hut storage facility was removed and replaced with a two-storey, prefabricated accommodation and science block, which also housed a library and study area and was a focus for field party radio operations. Another major addition to Scott Base came with the completion of the new powerhouse and installation of a reverse osmosis water distillation plant in the 1979-80 season.
Tragedy struck in 1979, with the Air New Zealand Erebus flight disaster, which saw plans to create a new mess, lounge and bar, sleeping section and ablutions block put on hold. Their eventual completion was celebrated in 1982 – just in time for the 25th anniversary of Scott Base. The following year saw the commissioning of the Command Centre that would house administration, telecommunications and the Post Office. The next stage of the rebuilding of Scott Base was heralded with the opening of the Hatherton Geosciences Laboratory in 1984. The final installations, stages 6 and 7, included the provision of workspace for base carpenters, engineers and electricians, and a vehicle workshop and storage facility. Both were completed during the 1988 summer season.
Scott Base’s most recent addition has come in the form of a multi-purpose building called the Hillary Field Centre (HFC). The $4.7 million all-purpose warm store represents the largest construction project ever undertaken at Scott Base. It provides a heated bulk store facility, offices, vehicle storage, training room and gymnasium. It will also enable Antarctica New Zealand to support larger-scale field events, thus ensuring Scott Base remains a world-class Antarctic research facility.