Monday, January 12, 2009

A little history to Scott Base

People were a little slow around base today. Along with rugby niggles, there may have been a bit too much celebration last night. To cap it off there were many disappointed people whose flights out of McMurdo Sound were once again delayed. Including mine! I’m not too disappointed though. The difference being that I would be going back to New Zealand, where as the scientists are all headed to either the Darwin Glacier or into the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Much more exciting.

The Hercules I was to be boarding on Tuesday morning did not leave Christchurch today due to bad landing weather down here. The RNZAF Hercules generally fly in one day and leave the next, as they require an eight hour turn around time. Although the weather feels mild down here at the moment, snowfall has reduced visibility, making it unsafe to fly.

All of a sudden a little pressure was off me. I did not have to rush to do everything I wanted in just one day. So I ended up spending most of the day in the Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE) hut which was a real change of pace. At present the TAE hut offers a quiet area for Scott Base staff that is detached from the main Scott Base complex (beware: intercom messages still come through loud and clear and can give you a massive fright). The stand-alone hut has the feel of a kiwi bach and is full of all sorts of information from newspaper cuttings to scientific publications. It is an unofficial recent history museum, complete with food and clothing relicts from 1957 to present.

Up until 1989 the TAE hut was used as a mess and as additional accommodation, but there is much more history surrounding this little hut. On January 20 1957, Able Seaman Tito, the youngest and a maori member of the expedition on HMNZS Endeavor raised the New Zealand flag to open the TAE hut, the founding of Scott Base. The low rocky promontory on the southeast tip of Hut Point Peninsula was chosen for its almost level land surface, its clear access over sea ice and because it is suitable for meteorological observations, upper atmospheric physics and seismic recording. This was important, as the base was set up for two major events: to support science for the International Geophysical Year (IGY, 1957-1958) and to provide a base for the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE, 1955-1958) jointly led by Dr. Vivian Fuchs (UK) and Sir Edmund Hillary.

Following the conquest of the South Pole by Amundsen, the next obvious challenge was to cross the entire continent. Shackleton was the first to attempt a trans-Antarctic crossing in 1914. He set out with a sledge party from the Weddell Sea, traveling toward the Ross Sea. Although there is an amazing and heroic survival story surrounding this expedition, Shackleton was not successful in his attempt. Dr. Vivian Fuchs, a British scientist, was the next to initiate a trans-Antarctic venture. Fuchs was experienced in Antarctica and qualified to supervise the extensive scientific investigation to be made alongside the crossing. In a planning document for the expedition, he writes:

‘Shackleton’s attempt to make a trans-antarctic journey in 1914 was frustrated by the loss of his ship the ‘Endurance’. Since that time such a journey has been constantly in the minds of polar travelers. Today the interest of many nations in the Antarctic brings competition into the field. For varying reasons it may be expected that some nations (e.g. United States, Argentina, Chile, France) will initiate such a venture. Success will bring world-wide prestige.

A trans-continental journey made wholly within territory claimed by the British Commonwealth, and with an exploratory and scientific programme as indicated below, would gain prestige and at the same time contribute to the solidarity of Commonwealth interests. At the present time we have the men and the experience required to make certain of success. Other nations competing in the Antarctic are not yet in so a favourable position to make a journey of comparable importance. Now, therefore, is the time to seize the opportunity.’

The planned route was from Vahsel Bay in the Weddell Sea, to the Ross Sea. The Commonwealth TAE had two parties: the crossing party led by Fuchs, and the Ross Sea party, led by Sir Ed. The Ross Sea party supported the crossing party by building Scott Base, laying supply depots and establishing a vehicle route from the Polar Plateau through the western mountains back to Ross Island. Sir Ed and his team of four men (a.k.a. the Southern Tractor party) left Scott Base on October 14, 1957, in three Ferguson tractors and a weasel (tracked vehicle) towing ten tonnes of cargo. The men reached the South Pole on January 4, 1958, and were met by the crossing party at the Pole on January 19. The complete Commonwealth TAE team returned to Scott Base victorious on March 2, 1958.

The secondary aim of the TAE was science contributing to the IGY. Its scientific objectives included meteorology, geology, gravimetric work, seismic sounding of the polar ice sheet, and (most interestingly I think) the geography of Antarctica’s interior. Fuchs writes, ‘the transcontinental journey will also show whether the polar plateau is or is not interrupted by mountain ranges south of latitude 80 degrees South…the route through Victoria Land will pass over unexplored areas and will delimit the western margin of the Victoria Land mountains. The eastern limits of these mountains are known from the work of Scott and Shackleton's expeditions’. It surprises me that at this late stage, there really had been no further advance in our understanding of Antarctica’s geography since Scott and Shackleton’s time.

Whilst the two main parties were off traversing the continent, a New Zealand scientific party based at Scott Base also contributed to the IGY and managed to explore 103 600 square kilometers of unchartered continent. The objective of the IGY was to learn more about the earth, in particular about the upper atmosphere and its response to solar influence. Many countries were involved in the initiative including the US, UK, Soviet Union, Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Japan, Norway and South Africa. This marked New Zealand’s first active involvement in scientific research in Antarctica. New Zealand’s IGY leader was Trevor Hatherton… and I’m sitting in the Hatherton Lab of Scott Base right now. The success of the IGY for New Zealand and globally, illustrated the value of Scott Base as a scientific observation laboratory. From initial plans for its removal after three years, Scott Base became permanent.

I just received word that I may not even fly home on Wednesday! The US has apparently over booked the plane and I may be bumped, and flown on Friday. Provided I’m okay with that. I am pretty okay with that. Life could be much worse.

The TAE hut right on the shore with sea ice beyond

A poster found in the TAE hut depicting the New Zealand trans-Antarctic expedition party

A diagram of Scott Base from 1970-71. There is still one linking corridor along the complete length of the base (~500 metres). You really can’t evade anyone, they WILL find you! ‘B’ is still the science/computer area (Hatherton Lab), ‘Q’ is where I sleep and ‘A’ is bathrooms etc. so there has been a little change. I thought the snippets of advice were great - they haven’t changed much!

A weddell seal, just to keep you interested! We see these beasts from Scott Base out on the sea ice at the moment. They hang around open cracks and holes and are very territorial. This photo was taken of in Terra Nova Bay in 2006 where I was doing research.


Jay Piggott said...

Nice one Libby!
I am enjoying the blog and it would seem you are having a fantastic AYA experience.

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