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Living and Working in Antarctica

Conditions for living and working in Antarctica have changed markedly since the days of the first explorers and scientists.

Early Conditions Top

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, Ross Island 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

Antarctica Today Top

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 for the 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.

 Life at 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 Station.

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 -20C). 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 from oven
NZ scientist checks data received at Scott base from Mt Erebus volcanic eruptions

Transport Top

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 Hercules.

Aircraft are also used for aerial photography, penguin counts, 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, glaciers or ice shelves can be dangerous because of hidden crevasses (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 from freezing.

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

Field Work Top

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 the windows.

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 dehydrated. 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 tents.

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 Base.

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. 1995.

Australians in Antarctica. C. Heath. 1984.

The Longest Night. Wild South Video.

Antarctica: A lonely planet travel survival kit. Jeff Rubin. 1996

Scott Base, Antarctci: A history of NZ's southern most station 1957-1997.  David Harrowfield. 1997.