Antarctic adventure, discovery and science
Antarctica is one of the most challenging and unforgiving places on Earth. Early expeditions were a combination of exploration and scientific research. Technology has changed the way we explore and study the Antarctic environment, but the spirit of adventure and the focus on science remains. For most New Zealand scientists, this adventure begins at Scott Base.
Establishing Scott Base
Scott Base was established in 1957. It is located on Ross Island in the Ross Sea region – about 4000 km from Christchurch and 1500 km from the South Pole. The base was originally part of the 1958 Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
There is a profound sense of privilege. I’m going to be walking in the place few people ever get to visit.
Before constructing Scott Base, some of the buildings were first set up in Wellington for the public to view – this shows the public interest in the mission. The components of each building were numbered and coded so they could be dismantled and reassembled in Antarctica – a little like a LEGO building today. In 1976, the original six buildings were replaced with larger, more permanent buildings.
Life at Scott Base
Scott Base is like a small village. The base supplies its own heat, electricity, freshwater and food for up to 85 people during the summer and fewer than 20 over winter. People are at Scott Base to work – either on scientific research or to keep the base running – but there are recreational opportunities for ‘down time’. Antarctica New Zealand compares Scott Base to a private Kiwi lodge. It is rather like a backpackers for scientists – in the extreme cold!
In addition to living, eating and recreational quarters, Scott Base has three labs:
- The Hatherton Lab houses long-term experiments, an electronics workshop and computer access.
- The Summer Lab provides quiet, uninterrupted lab space for equipment set-up.
- The Wet Lab houses marine biology research and environmental monitoring of the base’s wastewater treatment.
International agreements and New Zealand environmental legislation are in place to help protect Antarctica’s pristine environment. Scott Base treats all human waste and wastewater on site. The solids (like all rubbish) are packaged and returned to New Zealand for disposal.
Life in the field camps
Fieldwork is the reason most scientists travel to Antarctica – whether to observe, take samples or make measurements. Some scientists may camp for up up to 100 days out in the open!
Given the extreme environment, everyone at Scott Base undertakes Antarctic field skills. This training covers clothing, snowcraft, cooking, tents, environmental management – and going to the toilet! The training is needed to minimise both personal risk and environmental impacts.
Nigel’s experiences in Antarctica
Nigel tells us about daily life at Scott Base. People live within close proximity – four beds in each small bunk room and shared dining and entertainment areas. Everyone helps with chores – from doing their own dishes to helping out in the kitchen. Experts are on hand to assist with survival training, transportation and keeping base operations running smoothly. Nigel even visits his neighbours at McMurdo Station to meet the locals and help himself to an ice cream.
The conditions at Scott Base can be trying – and even more so for those doing fieldwork out on the ice – but just like Nigel, the people he meets are thrilled with the opportunity to live and work in a unique environment.
New scientific knowledge often develops as the result of collaboration between groups of scientists. Conditions like those at Scott Base or during fieldwork mean that scientists work in close proximity – both physically and with their research expertise.
On Thin Ice: Nigel Latta in Antarctica
Watch Series 1/Episode 1
- Life at Scott Base (video timecode 3:28–6:23)
- Antarctic field skills (video timecode 8:54–14:30)
Watch Series 1/Episode 2
- Waste processing (video timecode 21:00–24:38)
- Scott Base menus and overwintering (video timecode 38:50–44:00)
Life in Antarctic field camps
View Dr Megan Balk’s experiences of field conditions in this PowerPoint.
Extreme weather conditions aren’t the only hazards in Antarctica. Fire is a major safety risk. Even static electricity can be dangerous. To counter the danger, people regularly touch metal objects to avoid electrical charge build-up!
Nigel tours Scott Base’s wastewater treatment plant. International protocols set out requirements for waste management. Scott Base, like many other treatment stations in New Zealand, uses UV disinfection. Learn more about wastewater treatment.
Visit Antarctica New Zealand’s website for more information about Scott Base.
Read about waste management at Scott Base.
Wikipedia has a list of Antarctic expeditions from the 7th century to the present.
Wikipedia also has a list of research stations in Antarctica.
New Zealand’s Antarctic home is falling down and a case is being put forward to replace it. Find out more in this interactive story from Stuff.