and Working in Antarctica
Conditions for living and working in Antarctica have changed
markedly since the days of the first explorers and scientists.
Early this century, expeditions to Antarctica sailed south
in late summer when the sea ice was at a minimum. Bases would
be established and preparations made for field work over the
long, dark winter. Exploration would begin in spring and the
expedition would aim to leave at the end of the summer when
the sea ice melted or broke out.
|Cargo sledges outside Scott's 1910-14
hut, Cape Evans, Ross Island
||Pony snowshoes, Scott's hut, Cape Evans,
||Food and primus cooking gear outside
Scott's 1910-14 hut, Cape Evans
||Shackleton's Transantarctic Expedition
Ross Sea party memorial cross Cape Evans
||Acetylene gas lighting plant, Shackleton's
1907-09 hut, Cape Royds, Ross Is
These days, scientists need only spend a minimum of time
in Antarctica. Transport is fast and efficient and there are
permanent bases and support staff.
There are now around 40 permanent scientific bases in the
Antarctic region, with the greatest concentration along the
Antarctic Peninsula. There are many more temporary huts and
some abandoned stations. The first permanently maintained
base was built by the Australians in 1954.
Many bases were built for the scientific projects planned
International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. The United
States built the first permanent inland base at the South
Pole and New Zealand built Scott Base on Ross Island.
Nowadays, over four thousand people work in Antarctica over
summer, but this drops to under one thousand in winter. At
Scott Base, about thirty New Zealand Antarctic Programme (NZAP)
staff, including a "winter over" team of about 10,
provide food, administration, communications, operations and
field training for the scientific and research personnel.
Since the late 1950s there have been about twenty to thirty
science projects a year undertaken from Scott Base.
Scott Base Top
|Scott Base, New Zealand's base in the Antarctic,
was built in 1957 and rebuilding began in 1976. It now
consists of a series of eight modern buildings built from
sheet steel encasing polyurethane foam - a bit like a
cold store in reverse. This material is extremely strong
and provides good insulation. The buildings are linked
by all weather corridors and each can be isolated by fire
doors. The buildings are elevated off the ground so that
snow can blow underneath.
Water is obtained by de-salinization of sea water using
a reverse osmosis system. The fresh water is stored
in four tanks, each one with 40,000 litre capacity.
It is necessary to have plenty in reserve in case of
fire which is a hazard in the dry air of Antarctica.
The over-wintering staff receive professional fire-fighting
training in New Zealand before going to Antarctica and
regular fire drills are held.
Scott Base contains thirty bedrooms, each sleeping
two people in summer and has modern bathroom and laundry
facilities. A chef cooks the meals. In summer there
are plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables brought in
by the regular flights. A
hydroponics unit provides some fresh vegies
during winter. Bread is baked at the base and festive
meals are prepared for special occasions such as Christmas
and midwinter's day. Refrigerators and freezers are
used just like in a normal kitchen.
Food scraps, paper, and untreated timber are burnt
in a high temperature incinerator. Sewerage and grey
water is discharged into the sea through a heated pipe.
All other wastes (eg. metal, plastics and batteries)
are returned to New Zealand.
The power supply is provided by diesel-powered generators.
The base is heated by hot water circulating throughout
the buildings, heated by the generator exhaust. This
is supplemented by oil-fired boilers.
Inside the buildings it is warm enough to wear normal
clothes, just like in New Zealand. For working outside,
dressing in lots of layers is the best way to keep warm
and minimise wind chill. Thermal underwear made of wool
or polypropylene, wool shirts, wool or polarfleece jackets
and trousers and then wind-proof jackets and overalls
are provided to staff. Most of these items are made
in New Zealand. Sunglasses, and goggles if it is windy,
are very important in the bright sunlight reflected
off the ice. Hats, balaclavas, mittens, gloves and special
outer gloves with a place to wipe your runny nose are
also important if working outside.
Scott Base operates a normal 8-5 working day and after
work staff can read or write letters, watch videos,
relax in the bar or library, or go for a walk. There
is even a ski field and a golf course which uses pink
balls! There are phones, faxes and computer e-mail and
in summer weekly mail deliveries so there is not the
same degree of isolation as in the early days of Antarctic
expeditions. The last flight of the summer is in late
February and apart from an overflight in June to drop
supplies and mail, there is no physical contact in winter
with the outside world until a flight in August. Regular
flights begin again in October.
Because of this isolation, it is essential people working
at Scott Base work well as a team and get on socially
in the small community. Selection of NZAP staff takes
this into account. Positions are advertised in February
for jobs such as the chef, cleaners, kitchenhand, mechanic,
electrician and field training instructors. Successful
applicants go to a training camp at Tekapo in August
where they learn safety and field techniques, first
aid, fire fighting and radio communications. First-timers
to Antarctica spend a night out in a polar tent in the
snow. They also learn how to build a snow shelter and
cook a meal in it. Staff have a thorough medical and
dental check-up before they go. There is a trained first
aider at Scott Base and a hospital at nearby McMurdo
Once they get to Antarctica, new arrivals spend the
first few days doing field training. They build a snow
mound or trench and sleep outside to learn how to cope
with the cold (which may be -20°C). The very dry air
also needs adjusting to; despite the cold it is necessary
to drink a lot of water.
|NZ's Scott Base, Pram Point (old base
in foreground - since demolished)
|Aerial view NZ's Scott Base (old base
on left since demolished)
|Geology team prepare for sledging expedition
from NZ's Scott Base
|Midnight snack inside NZ's Scott Base
mess, Ross Island
|NZ Scott Base cook lifts fresh bread
|NZ scientist checks data received at
Scott base from Mt Erebus volcanic eruptions
||New Zealand, USA and Italy co-operate to
transport the scientists, base staff and cargo to Antarctica.
Large cargo and fuel are transported by ship once the
sea ice has broken up in January and February. Other equipment
and personnel are flown by Hercules, Galaxy and Starlifter
planes which land on a sea ice runway in McMurdo Sound
in spring. In summer when the sea ice has begun to melt,
the snow surface of the Ross Ice Shelf is used for ski-equipped
Aircraft are also used for aerial photography, penguin
magnetometry and other work. Fixed-wing planes
and helicopters are used to transport scientists and
field staff to remote locations.
Four-wheel drive trucks are used to commute to the ice
runway and McMurdo Station.
Hagglunds (vehicles with tracks like a bulldozer)
are used for science projects on the polar plateau,
the Ross Ice Shelf, the sea ice and for search and rescue.
Skidoos are used by
parties traversing large areas on field trips. They
can tow sledges weighing up to 500kg.
Travelling by any vehicle on the polar plateau,
ice shelves can
be dangerous because of hidden
(deep cracks in glaciers), the rough surface or in blizzard
conditions. Vehicles have to be "plugged in"
at night to an electric heater to prevent their engines
Husky dogs are no longer used in Antarctica.
|US Navy LC 130 ski-equipped Hercules
transport aircraft, McMurdo Sound
|BAS resupply vessel Bransfield beset
in pack ice, Weddell Sea
|Geologist sledging camp in mist - Taylor
/ Ferrar glaciers, Transantarctic Mtns
|Sunrise and blowing snow with NZ's huskies
outside Scott Base, Ross Is
|Throughout the summer season scientists
and field support staff leave Scott Base to do their research
around Ross Island, the
Dry Valleys or in more remote locations. Others
participate in international projects such as the Cape
Roberts Drilling Project.
After attending the overnight field training course,
field equipment (tents, fuel, radios, first aid kits
etc) is checked. The food and kitchen boxes are collected.
Primus stoves with kerosene are usually taken. In some
field huts gas stoves using a mixture of propane and
butane which works in cold conditions are used.
Polar tents are of a similar design to the ones the
early expeditioners used although they are now made
of nylon and polyester. They are a double skin tent,
designed to trap air in between the layers for insulation.
Two people sleep in each tent on thick foam mattresses.
They have double-layered down sleeping bags with liners
and outer covers.
Field parties supported by Hagglunds sometimes tow
a wannigan - like a caravan on skis. By using a diesel
or petrol powered portable generators they can even
have the luxury of a microwave for cooking!
Trying to sleep during the 24 hours of daylight can
be a problem for some people. It is a good idea to get
into a routine of going to bed at the same time each
day to help the body get into the habit of sleeping
in the light. Some people use black eye covers to make
it dark and at Scott Base shutters can be pulled over
Radio contact is maintained with Scott Base through
a radio "sched" every evening. A weather forecast
is important information to pass on to the field party.
Food for the trip is pre-packed into boxes during the
winter. Not much fresh food can be taken on long field
trips and a lot of the food is
Freeze-dried soup, meat and vegetables are
used for dinner and crackers, cheese and chocolate bars
for lunches and snacks.
Often a spare tent is taken for a cooking and eating
area, or people cook and eat in their sleeping tents
as it is usually too cold to cook or eat outside. Ventilation
is important when using the primus stoves in the sleeping
Domestic jobs in the field can be quite time-consuming
- as well as cooking and cleaning up, snow has to be
melted for water. All rubbish is brought back to Scott
|Field assistant talks with VHF radio
while wearing protective parka
|Field party loads gear on UHIN helicopter,
Scott Base, Ross Is
|Field assistant in storm gear and down
mitts weathers blizzard, Royal Society Range
|NZ geologist takes field notes, Blue
Glacier, Transantarctic mtns
Further Reading: Top
Antarctica (2nd edition). Readers Digest. 1990.
Explore Antarctica. L. Crossley. Cambridge University Press.
Australians in Antarctica. C. Heath. 1984.
The Longest Night. Wild South Video.
Antarctica: A lonely planet travel survival kit. Jeff Rubin.
Scott Base, Antarctci: A history of NZ's southern most station
1957-1997. David Harrowfield. 1997.