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Energy is key to Scott Base’s $150m upgrade

A bigger New Zealand base in Antarctica, costing about $150 million, will need more electricity – hopefully from renewable sources. David Williams reports.

In April 1957, just months after New Zealand established Scott Base in Antarctica, a Kiwi expedition team about to attempt a trans-continental adventure made the pilgrimage to Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s hut at Cape Evans.

Sir Edmund Hillary called it a “saddening disappointment”. The ground around the hut was a “complete shambles”, the hut’s bottom floor filled with ice and there had been no attempt by parties who had wintered there recently to keep it tidy. “It seemed a poor memorial to a great man, and as there was little we could do we were glad to go,” he wrote in The Crossing of Antarctica: the Commonwealth trans-Antarctic Expedition, a book penned with English explorer Vivian Fuchs.

There was a call to action from New Zealand. An Antarctic Huts Committee was formed. Over several years, volunteers shovelled ice and snow from that hut, as well as Scott’s hut at Hut Point and Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds. It wasn’t until December 1960 that the first hut restoration party began its work.

So is the way of things in Antarctica, it seems – even today. Years of planning are needed to tackle projects squeezed into a four-month construction window, using materials flown from thousands of kilometres away.

“The sprawl of the current base means you’re walking down a big, long corridor for a lot of it.” – Simon Shelton

Antarctica NZ started its latest business case on options to upgrade Scott Base’s facilities in 2016, getting $6.1 million for preliminary work. Now, two years later, there’s a range of concepts being considered – with a detailed business case to be lodged with the Government in December. The cost of redevelopment might be as high as $150 million.

Scott Base, at the southern end of Ross Island, sits about 10 metres above sea level and a couple of hundred metres from the shore. The base is a hodge-podge of buildings, the main one about 6000 square metres, joined or interlinked. Some parts date back to the 1970s. Antarctica NZ senior project manager Simon Shelton says the last significant upgrade was finished in 1986.

“The sprawl of the current base means you’re walking down a big, long corridor for a lot of it,” Shelton says. “So you waste a lot of time just getting from A to B. And you might have to go to three or four different places because it’s all spread out. Over the last 40 years it’s evolved, as opposed to a holistic look at how the base could function the most efficiently.”

Inefficient and, considering its moon-like isolation and severe weather, risky.

Services like pipes and wires are accessed by a half-metre void under the floor. There’s a single reverse osmosis plant – to turn sea water into drinking water – which is old. “We nurse it along,” Shelton says. And the secondary accommodation building, Q Hut, is basically a big steel portal building with a plywood skin and Pink Batts for insulation. “It was probably the best at the time but now it leaks, the insulation’s terrible on it, it’s noisy. So things like people getting a good night’s sleep is really difficult.”

Scott Base engineers send Shelton photos of their underfloor work and small things that make their job difficult or time-consuming – “right down to finding materials from 20-foot containers that are 100 metres away”.

Push for renewable energy

The last really big piece of kit built at Scott Base was a $10 million, three-turbine wind farm, which is due for an upgrade in 2030. Shelton says it’s likely a new base will use more energy – so Antarctica NZ would like to use more electricity and burn less fuel.

“Like most of the world, our preference is in renewable energies – plus it will save us the risk and cost of sending fuel down there,” Shelton says. More energy might come from solar or more wind, he says, meaning the wind farm could potentially be expanded. “Or with modern technology, by 2025, we may just need to replace the componentary or a head or something like that.”

New Zealand has what’s called a joint logistics pool with the United States, which has a base, McMurdo Station, three kilometres from Scott Base.

Shelton, who has spent two winters and seven summers in Antarctica, says: “One of our major contributions to that joint logistics pool is energy from the wind farm. In really crude terms, New Zealanders can go on an American air force jet and then, in turn, we provide energy from the wind farm to supplement that. But we also use energy from the farm as well.”

If you think about anchoring wind turbines – which are set in permafrost – it’s no surprise the costs of a new or upgraded building might be relatively minor in the overall $150 million budget. Shelton estimates it might be as low as 20 to 25 percent. He says much of the money will be sucked up by the deployment of people, getting materials to Antarctica and demolition.

(The design team involves architectural firms Jasmax and the UK’s Hugh Broughton Architects, global services consultancy Steensen Varming, engineers Opus and quantity surveyors Turner & Townsend.)

Upgrade versus rebuild

Shelton says more than half of Scott Base is set for demolition, because it’s below standard. But he’s non-committal when asked if his team is leaning towards a partial upgrade or complete redevelopment.

“I’d love to say but we literally but there’s just options galore in front of us. We’ve got the designs but there’s a lot of efficiencies to be gained in how we do it. We don’t know that now. We won’t know until November-December when that detailed business case is drafted and we’ll have our recommendation in there.”

But it’s almost certain the project will be stretched over many years – “chances are it will be a six-to-12-year project”.

It’s likely a temporary camp will be needed for construction workers. Scott Base has capacity for 100 people – 86 at Scott Base and 14 in Q Hut. There’s little appetite for restricting New Zealand’s scientific work on the icy continent, Shelton says, which means builders will have to be housed elsewhere. Luckily, building temporary camps – basically re-jigged 20-foot containers – in Antarctica is commonplace now, given the growing trend of scientists conducting deep-field research.

(There’s been a flurry of building near Antarctica’s Ross Sea in recent years. China is building its fifth base. South Korea’s second base, Jang Bogo, was opened in 2014, making it the 10th country to run more than one year-round station on the southern continent.)

The original Scott Base was designed by Ministry of Works architect Frank Ponder. It took him 10 months, according to the December 1996 issue of the New Zealand Antarctic Society Magazine, Antarctic. Ponder settled on six huts, separated by corrugated iron walkways. “Although intended for only three years’ use, Ponder was confident the base buildings would be in ‘first-class order in 100 years’ time’.”

They lasted near 30 years, the magazine noted, before being replaced by “larger, continuous, and perhaps less appealing structures”. It’s now 32 years since Scott Base’s last big upgrade. Again, function might be favoured over form. But whatever the final design, it seems the third generation of Scott Base is well overdue.

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