The early plan to rebuild Scott Base

A report to Winston Peters reveals the Government’s preferred option to rebuild New Zealand’s base in Antarctica. David Williams reports.

The timing couldn’t have been better.

A press release sent yesterday touted work by Crown research institute GNS Science on the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest ice shelf in the world. It is world-class research being done by an international team, known as the ROSETTA-Ice project, in the Ross Dependency – an area of Antarctica that’s twice the size of New Zealand over which this country claims a right of sovereignty.

This kind of science is one of the key reasons this country operates on the fragile, unforgiving continent – to answer the big questions at the cutting edge, in this case the effects of climate change. (If the Ross Ice Shelf collapsed, it would hasten the slide of ground-based glaciers into the sea, raising sea levels by metres.)

Such important scientific projects can’t happen without a safe and functional base. But New Zealand’s home on the ice, Scott Base, a deteriorating hodgepodge of 11 buildings perched on Pram Point, on the southern edge of Ross Island, is nearing the end of its functional life.

In 2017, after almost 60 years of the base being buffeted by extreme weather, $6.1 million was set aside to come up with a redevelopment plan, to tackle the health and safety risks.

The details of a significant upgrade – its first in 33 years – should be made public in today’s Budget. Antarctica New Zealand is staying mum ahead of the big reveal. Megan Nicholl, the organisation’s general manager of communications, says: “I’m sorry, we cannot provide comment on tomorrow’s Budget, nor on Cabinet considerations or announcements at this stage.”

However, a briefing for Foreign Minister Winston Peters, released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act, gives an early peek into how officials thought the base’s redevelopment should be done – and at what cost.

Flurry of activity

High-level discussions about the Scott Base redevelopment have been happening for months.

Peters and Finance Minister Grant Robertson met last October to discuss Budget priorities. The following month, ahead of a Scott Base visit by Climate Change Minister James Shaw and the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser Juliet Gerrard, the redevelopment’s detailed business case was put to the Antarctica NZ board. The final Budget bid for the upgrade went to Treasury last December.

As part of New Zealand’s international treaty obligations, Antarctica NZ is required to submit an environmental impact assessment of the project to the Antarctic Treaty’s Committee for Environmental Protection. Its draft evaluation was meant to be submitted in January.

A year earlier, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) provided a briefing to Peters that laid out the four options in an indicative business case for the redevelopment.

They were:

“Replace” – replacing or refurbishing assets with no increase in standard or expansion in size;

“Upgrade” – a minimal upgrade with some extended services;

“Enhance” – a partial rebuild (some buildings, like the recently upgraded Hillary Field Centre, would remain) with significant upgrade;

And “aspirational” – a full rebuild of the base with a completely new modern facility.

The January 29, 2018 paper, signed by the then MFAT secretary Bernadette Cavanagh, said the preferred option was “enhance”. According to the paper, the $6.1 million earmarked the previous year would be used for “the design, engineering and project planning expertise that is necessary to develop the concept and fully costed developed design options for the ‘partial rebuild and significant upgrade’ of Scott Base”.

“Essentially the programme will be a series of discrete building projects.” – MFAT briefing

Partially rebuilding Scott Base in such an extreme environment, with only a three-month summer window each year, will take years. According to those early predictions, the preferred plan would span 13 years and cost roughly $150 million. However, overall costs – including operational costs, demolition and a “Crown capital charge” – were estimated at $224 million. (Of course, that could have changed as experts finalised their designs and sharpened their pencils on price.)

About $130 million of the price tag was to be spent on the new base buildings and plant over 13 years, plus $19 million to replace the existing wind farm.

The advantage of the “enhance” option is that key issues would be addressed quickly, while keeping the costs and disruption down. (The aspirational plan was budgeted to cost $50 million more.) Operations and science support will only be “marginally compromised”, as the rebuild will take place alongside the existing base.

The upgrade needs to be peer-reviewed internationally and is scheduled to start in the 2020-21 summer season.

“Essentially the programme will be a series of discrete building projects,” the paper says. “It will be a gradual process with a new building started each season and another being commissioned. Most components will be prefabricated and assembled over the summer, with the internal fit-out happening over winter.”

Scientists, used to Scott Base’s cramped conditions and inefficient layout, would have to endure 13 years of construction, while research, like the ROSETTA-Ice project, continues to assess the effects of climate change.

A 2017 academic study predicted earth could be 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial temperatures by 2031 – the final year of the proposed Scott Base upgrade – if not sooner. That level of temperature rise, a loose target in the Paris climate accord, is thought to be the point at which irreversible sea level rise will be locked in because of glaciers melting in Antarctica and Greenland.

As the years advance and the climate warms, New Zealand scientists’ monitoring of Antarctica’s ice sheets, which guide computer models predicting how they’ll change, will become increasingly important. As will the country’s perch at Pram Point.

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