New Zealand has a near-century old toehold in Antarctica. It will cost $150m to keep it.

In the 1980s, when the ozone hole was the most important research effort underway in Antarctica, a new lab was tacked on to the west end of Scott Base. Important physics and meteorological research got done there.

The ozone hole is shrinking these days and the west-end lab, named after famed Antarctic scientist Trevor Hatherton, is under-utilised. Some meteorological and atmospheric monitoring still occurs there and the IT department has moved in. But it's rundown and under used.

Meanwhile, climate change has become the most pressing science problem facing the southern continent. To accommodate this research, Antarctica New Zealand completed a $6.2 million upgrade and extension of the Hillary Field Centre (HFC) on the northeast end of Scott Base in 2015.

The bright and modern HFC fizzes as scientists and their guides gear up for expeditions onto continental Antarctica, the Ice or the Ross Sea. The HFC operates on ‘just-in-time’ principles: one team has to vacate a lab or garage stall quickly because another is coming and needs the space. Gear such as tents must be quickly dried, repaired and prepped for the next crew that's camping out.

It takes a few minutes to walk between the old Hatherton lab and the new HFC, but it's not a journey from old to new. Rather, it's a walk through the adequate.

These in-between areas have been good enough to keep people alive in the grim, awful cold of Antarctica. They've been good enough to produce some world-class science. They've been good enough to keep New Zealand's sovereignty claim intact, should that ever be needed.

Q Hut, for example, is a decades-old, two-storey accommodation unit that's a lot like a cheap backpackers. Visitors and staff sleep four to a room in bunk beds with almost no personal storage.

Visitors and staff remove their shoes before entering bedrooms to avoid awakening sleepers. Sound is a problem at Scott Base.

Visitors and staff remove their shoes before entering bedrooms to avoid awakening sleepers. Sound is a problem at Scott Base.

Because the construction method was poor by today's standards, Q Hut is expensive to heat and noise seems to amplify as it bounces around the structure.

Meanwhile, visitors and staff share toilets and showers across the hallway. They're clean thanks to hard-working domestic staff but no place to linger. So, adequate.

No doubt rational decisions were made when these facilities were designed and built. But the result today is a base that's rambling, inefficient and irrational.

The best that can be said is that getting from one end of Scott Base to the other doesn't require a trip outside, not including some outbuildings and storage.

This is significantly better than the 100+ separate buildings at McMurdo Station, the nearby US polar base.

"We've got infrastructure here that's at the end of its working life," says Simon Trotter, general manager of Antarctic operations for the state-owned entity.

"Since the 1970s, we've replaced like for like and maintained an infrastructure that supports our seasonal programme through the summer. During the winter months, we pretty much go through a maintenance phase to [bring] the base back up to spec," he says.

Scott Base is "on its last legs", says Antarctica NZ chief executive Peter Beggs.

As a result, he and his board have quietly been lobbying the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade – Antarctica NZ's ministry – about a complete rebuild. Wipe the existing base, or most of it, off the continent. Ship it back to NZ for disposal.

Replace it with a new base – fit for scientific purpose, super energy efficient, green, safe and flexible. Apply the lessons learned from operating in Antarctica since the 1950s in one grand exercise.

This lobbying had the desired effect. In the last budget, Antarctica NZ got $4m to write a business case and draw up preliminary designs. Beggs hopes to take those ideas to cabinet in late 2018 and is looking for a financial commitment in Budget 2019, although Crown disbursements would be spread over perhaps 10 years.

A complete rebuild will cost between $120m and $150m, Beggs says. To put that in perspective, Antarctica NZ's annual budget is just over $20m. So they want up to 7.5 times their annual budget for a capital rebuild. Is that really necessary?

Trotter and Beggs say adequate won't cut it for much longer.

"In order for those people to work those long, challenging seasons, we need ... good working facilities," Trotter says.

An Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) senior manager put the case slightly differently when he visited Scott Base in late October.

"Nowadays people in government and private industry don't generally work in 35-year-old buildings that have never been refurbished," said Dr Rob Wooding, general manager of support and operations at the AAD.

"These are harsh environments, which need robust buildings," he said.



The case for rebuilding Scott Base rests on the assumption it’s a place worth New Zealand remaining.

Officially, New Zealand and all other countries with stations on the Southern Continent are there for science. The Antarctic Treaty System – a collection of treaties, protocols, commissions and committees that govern the continent – bans pretty much all other activity such as mining, although some tourism and plenty of fishing are allowed.

The primary aim of the ATS is to "ensure that Antarctica is used exclusively for science and other peaceful purposes and doesn't become the focus of international conflict," says the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The science these days is mostly related to climate change. In the 1950s and ‘60s, geology was the most common research area. Ozone depletion occupied much of the 1980s and 90s. Throughout, penguins, seals, whales and other wildlife kept biologists busy.

Then there is sovereignty. Scott Base has been manned every single day since 1957 – 60 years of continual habitation. That matters because one day the Antarctic Treaty System might come undone.

A US president, for example, might decide he'd rather exploit the continent's mineral and oil and gas resources. These are presumed to be huge, even if they are currently locked away under kilometres of ice. Others may have their eye on all that fresh water, even if it's currently ice.

New Zealand has a territorial claim to a wedge of the continent through the Ross Dependency, a notional political area inherited from the United Kingdom. Wellington has administered it since the 1920s.

In the event of a territorial lolly scramble, New Zealand could claim the dependency as its own and continual habitation would strengthen our case. The US and other nations probably wouldn't recognise that claim. The US, for example, has probably kept McMurdo Station staffed longer than New Zealand has Scott.  

But it's not clear other claims would be stronger.

"While scientific research is a key focus for most countries, the motivations of others may be less clear," New Zealand’s 2016 Defence White Paper states.

Antarctica also has economic benefit to this country. A 2016 report estimated Antarctic-related activities bring around $125m to the Canterbury economy and $178m to the New Zealand economy.


Antarctica NZ is likely to rebuild on pretty much the same land on Ross Island, Beggs says. It's "well placed".

There's some infrastructure that doesn't need replacing, including wind turbines that power Scott Base as well as much of McMurdo Station, the American polar base a few kilometres away by road.

Proximity to McMurdo is central to Scott's existence. In an emergency, all personnel at Scott could flee to McMurdo and probably survive there for months.

US staff service the runways on which American (and a few New Zealand) planes resupply the bases almost daily during summer and a few times in winter. US icebreakers and cargo ships dock at McMurdo, delivering the annual supply of bulky and heavy items such as petrol, and taking away rubbish and human waste.

Scott's location is also well-placed for science. It sits where the Ross Ice Shelf meets the Ross Sea and isn't far from the Antarctic continent proper. It's also got good access to the Dry Valleys, an unusual ice-free region.

This spread of ecosystems make Scott Base attractive for a wide range of scientists.

It's also an important biological marine environment. Penguins, seals, orca, toothfish, skua birds and a host of creatures down to plankton and algae live in the region for at least part of the year.

It's the sea harbour closest to the South Pole, which is why early explorers such as Scott and Shackleton built huts in the area. So there's human heritage near Scott too.

Robert Falcon Scott left from Scott Hut in 1911 on his ultimately fatal expedition to the South Pole. Members of a Shackleton expedition were stranded here from 1915-17. They left hurriedly and the hut was almost perfectly preserved by cold. It’s since been conserved and is a remarkable museum.

Robert Falcon Scott left from Scott Hut in 1911 on his ultimately fatal expedition to the South Pole. Members of a Shackleton expedition were stranded here from 1915-17. They left hurriedly and the hut was almost perfectly preserved by cold. It’s since been conserved and is a remarkable museum.


If there's any concession on location, it might be to shift the base onto higher land in preparation for sea level rise.

But it needs to be reasonably close to the water because all fresh water at Scott is derived from the Ross Sea. Salt and contaminants are removed by reverse osmosis (RO). The RO plant was the best-available technology when it was installed in 1979-80 but there are much more energy-efficient technologies available now, says Trotter.

Similar problems come to light in the plumbing, electrical and carpentry workshops. If something breaks, tradies can't whip around to the DIY shop for supplies. They have to be fixed with what's available in Antarctica.

Steve ‘Sooty’ Denby looks after water and sewage at Scott Base from his well-resourced workshop. He can’t whip round to the Mitre 10 for tools or parts.

Steve ‘Sooty’ Denby looks after water and sewage at Scott Base from his well-resourced workshop. He can’t whip round to the Mitre 10 for tools or parts.

Some of the machinery used at Scott is so old that some spare parts are no longer available. Tradies have to manufacture them by hand. As a result, these workshops are disproportionately large. That's crucial space that could be devoted to science if a new base gets built on Antarctica NZ's timeline.

There are other problems too. Ross Island snow is fine like talcum powder, and it gets under the cladding, or skin, of the base. Most of the year, this isn't a problem. But on hot summer days, this snow melts and leaks into the interior.

"We have a moisture problem," says Trotter.

Others speak of the buildings as "sweating" and bucket brigades.


So what might a rebuilt Scott Base look like? An architectural statement? Something to wow the judges of architectural awards?

Probably not, says chief executive Peter Beggs.

"I'd love it to be Kiwi," he says.

He means something modest. Scott can sleep 85-90 people at one time (compared to almost 900 at McMurdo). Antarctica NZ probably won't build more new beds, because the organisation is good at providing for that number logistically and financially, Trotter says.

A modern facility would also need fewer staff to operate. In summer these days, about 45 staff keep Scott functioning and scientists safe outside. It's not known what new base staffing levels would look like, but the number is surely fewer. In turn, that would mean more scientists on the Ice.

But Beggs also means clean and green. In a 2014 TEDx Christchurch talk, he imagined a world that no longer burned coal. New Zealand, he said, should take a leading role in that movement. He was promptly ignored, but he's nonetheless a true believer.

"It's got to be absolutely functional for the type of work we do," says Trotter.

"I imagine some pretty funky ideas will come out [of the design phase] but if it was four boxes on the landscape and it does a great job ... then many people will be happy. If it's an improvement on how we live and work, it's got to be good," he says.

One trend evident at Antarctica NZ is lengthier expeditions on the Ice. In recent months, scientists and guides completed the longest NZ-led traverse across the Ice since Sir Edmund Hillary reached the South Pole on tractors in the late ‘50s.

More expeditions of this length and complexity are planned as scientists seek new data further afield from Scott.

"We're developing some new platforms around a traverse capability and deep field ... and current infrastructure is challenged to support that," says Trotter.

Planes and helicopters are still used of course, but some research projects are pushing airborne limits.

That said, Trotter is keen on storing base aircraft inside – they currently park outside in all weather, which isn't ideal.

This is the sort of thing coming out of the current consultation with Scott users. Marine biologists want a proper wet lab so they can collect and keep live specimens – starfish, for example. At the moment, this is done in a ramshackle hut on the beach that's only useable in high summer.

Other trends are becoming apparent. Artificial intelligence is combining with autonomous vehicles. Already this summer, drones have collected data from seawater deep under the Ice.

Over the next decade or two, the continent will almost certainly be wired, connected and droned to a degree not previously conceived of.

If Nasa can pilot rovers around Mars, there's no reason Kiwis couldn't pilot robots around Antarctica all winter.

That's another reason adequate is no longer considered good enough and has been replaced by the word ‘flexible’.

Meanwhile, Trotter is keen that staff are better accommodated.

"A four-person bunk room is probably acceptable for a short-term stay," he says, but if you are visiting for many months on end, sharing a room is not adequate.

"People need to be well rested to make sensible, smart and safe decisions."

Of course, given the cost of shipping materials to Antarctica, the new building(s) will have to be planned in unusual detail. Don't ship a pallet of insulation south unless every batten will be used.

Antarctica NZ has recent experience with this level of planning – the refurbished Hillary Field Centre. It required dynamiting rock and a crane.  

This will be a problem for the contractors and their quantity surveyors.

"The HFC is good and something to base plans around," says Trotter, "but there's no reason we couldn't do better."

Words: Will Harvie

Visuals: Iain McGregor

Design & layout: Aaron Wood

Will Harvie and Iain McGregor travelled to the ice courtesy of Antarctica NZ. Somehow, no camera equipment was harmed in the making of this piece.