Magnetic South: Lessons from Antarctica

I have just got back from Antarctica. I expected it to be an extraordinary experience [it was] but I didn’t expect it to be so relevant to discussions about urban form and thoughts on New Zealand’s role in the world. I’ll get to that soon but first a little travelogue with an emphasis on transport technologies because I’m sure they will interest some of you:


USAF LC-130 Hercules at Pegasus field on the Ross Ice Shelf

Our ride there and back, the current mushiness of the ice means that planes without skids can’t be used, so we couldn’t go down in either an RNZAF C-130 nor the massive USAF C-17 Globemaster jet transporter [which also means no fresh food for the bases either]. So it was eight hours of sitting like a paratrooper and deafening racket:

LC-130 Interior

LC-130 Interior

By about three quarters of the way in you get this:

Victoria Land; massive mountains all but buried by massive glaciers

Victoria Land; massive mountains all but buried by equally massive glaciers

One for Stu: Now that’s a bus!

Ivan the Terra Bus

Ivan the Terra Bus

The Americans name all their vehicles…. Next ‘day’ [there is no night] our ride out on a survival course was this Swedish beauty:



The very cool Antarctica NZ workhorse: The Hagglund, here at our camp for the ‘night’; a spot know as ‘Room with a View’, Mt Erebus beneath the cloud:

Hagglund at Room with a View. Mt Erebus in the background

Hagglund at Room with a View. Mt Erebus in the background

Mt Erebus is the world’s southern-most active Volcano and at 3798m is a bit higher than Aoraki/Mt Cook. But even though we were pretty much at sea level it didn’t look anything like that size. This is an insight into just how disorienting it is down there; there are no features to give scale, no trees or buildings, but also there’s no haze for atmospheric perspective. You can see for miles without any sense of how distant objects are. The mountain felt smaller but closer than it is; it felt like it was just there, that you could climb it in a few hours not the days it actually takes [assuming you can avoid disappearing into a crevasse].

Mt Erebus

Mt Erebus

In this shot there is a small amount of steam coming off the top. Erebus and the second highest peak on Ross Island, Mt Terror, are named after the two ships used by Captain James Ross who discovered the Island in 1841. Both ships were later lost trapped in sea ice in the Arctic with all 130 men dying horribly trying to trek south, a very gruesome event involving poisoning from tinned food and evidence of cannibalism. Given the place of Mt Erebus in NZ history it is interesting to note that Erebus is ancient Greek for “deep darkness, shadow” and “In Greek literature the name Erebus is also used to refer to a region of the Underworld where the dead had to pass immediately after dying, and is sometimes used interchangeably with Tartarus.” [Wiki] If anyone can explain the thinking behind such dark and fateful ship names I’m keen to hear it. Here is a satellite image showing the glow from the permanent lava lake in the crater of the mountain [one of only five such places in the world]: Mt Erebus certainly does a good job of living up to its name.

Accommodation. Mt Erebus behind.

Our digs; tent design pretty much unchanged from Scott’s day.

Room with a View;  towards the TransAntarctic Mountains across the Ross Ice Shelf

Room with a View; towards the TransAntarctic Mountains across the Ross Ice Shelf

As you can see we had very benign weather on that trip; still, sunny, and warmer than it should be even for high summer. But sunny weather isn’t always what you want when shooting so I was pleased it wasn’t all like that all the time:

Observation Hill

Observation Hill from Scott Base

You just may be able to make out the cross at the top of the hill above. This is the period monument to Captain Scott and the four others who died of starvation and exposure on their return from the pole in March 1912 erected by the surviving members of his expedition and its relief party in January 1913.


At work on the Observation Hill summit [thanks to Arran for the photo].

Made of Jarra by the ship’s carpenters and exactly 100 years on this hill now, inscribed with a line from Tennyson: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”


Scott’s Cross, Observation Hill

Here you can clearly see the wonderfully light and fluffy Antarctica snow, constantly filled with air and rearranged by the frequent strong winds. Ross Island’s volcanic nature is visible too; it’s basically just loose scoria wherever it shows through the ice and snow. What is probably a little harder to spot is the hint of the vast US base McMurdo Station just peaking above the snow:


MacTown as it is know locally is a random and sprawling collection of sheds and hardware, huge fuel tanks, the abandoned site of the 1960s Nuclear power plant; complete with bars, a bowling alley, and of course a church:

The Church of The Snows McMurdo Station

The federally funded National Science Foundation undertakes the research here and elsewhere on the continent, particularly at the South Pole, which this base supports, often involving NZ scientists. But the place seems to have been put together with scant thought even to functionality, showing every sign of growth by random accretion and little attention to design solutions to the problems set by the conditions:



Just like an Alaskan mining town the Americans there told me. Looking the other way from Ob Hill is this view:


Left to right; our three wind turbines, the road between Scott Base and MacTown, and just visible the green buildings of Scott Base itself down by the ice:

Scott Base

Scott Base

Basically Scott Base is cool. While the comparison with MacTown is a little unfair given the difference in scale [x10] it is impossible to avoid; not least by many of the Americans themselves, Scott Base is as planned and as practical as McMurdo isn’t. The most obvious difference after the scale is aesthetic; the green, officially called Chelsea Cucumber [sounds rather some stripper’s working name] the colour was chosen by a former head of the programme who was impressed by the combination of white buildings and green grass in Ireland and thought the other way round could work in Antarctica. While I don’t think it is anything like grass green I do think it works brilliantly. Coherent.


Another significant difference between the bases is that Scott Base is all inside, it’s a Moon Base; see that link-way above, it all but has its own atmosphere. Unlike the bunch of separate buildings at McMurdo the only time you are forced to go outside at our base is to get to the smokers’ hut, and I’m sure that’s deliberate. But the Americans have to go outside to get something to eat, to get to the bar, to go to bed, to prepare for field trips, to do everything really. This must be really inefficient, especially at the really cold times of the year; always dressing and undressing.



Also each module is cleverly constructed out of prefab cool-store panels. Check out the door; It’s essentially an inside-out fridge; a constant and balmy 18C inside and whatever outside:


Even though it was as warm as it gets while I was there I never saw anyone use this deck on the front of the base, but it’s a great bit of kiwi vernacular. Another advantage of the panels, which are polystyrene insulation faced with colour steel, is that it is extremely sensible to present as smooth as possible exterior in order to shed the snow easily. So the structure is all internal; this really is the perfect place for minimalism. So well done Antarctic NZ and the team at Opus.


The good news and good design isn’t just skin deep either:


Antarctic NZ with Meridian Energy installed three wind turbines on Crater Hill above the base in 2009. They deliver power to a grid connected to the two bases [performing at 111% of the predicted level] saving the just under 1/2 million litres of diesel from being schlepped down there and burnt each year. Here’s the network:

Ross Island grid

Ross Island grid

When I took this shot all the Scott Base diesel generators were off and only two of McMurdo’s were running, around half the total consumption was from the turbines. Not a lot of wind at the time but the turbines are producing close to capacity, and I never saw them still. There are plans to expand the system. They are impressive up close too:


In particular note the Kiwi designed eight-legged base devised to attach each tower to precast concrete foundation blocks set into the permafrost:


It is great to see the cooperation between the two bases and in particular the high quality of the NZ contribution to both the infrastructure and the research efforts in this extraordinary place. Green on the outside; and greener in operation too.

It is clear that we rely on the much bigger American operation in a lot of ways but it is also clear that there is huge value our independent thinking and comparative lack of resource because this means that we have been able to find innovative ways of facing the same challenges, offering fresh ideas to our bigger and richer partner.

By all accounts NZ punches well above its weight on the quality and quantity of the scientific programmes out of Scott Base and it is easy to see why; along with the relaxed and efficient tone set by the people there the physical infrastructure has been put together extremely cleverly with a great deal of real initiative and a very practical emphasis on working effectively and sustainably in that tough but fragile environment.

Am I alone in thinking that there is a metaphor here in these buildings down on the ice? Isn’t this exactly the ideal role for as smaller and less wealthy nation like ours; to be nimbler, to search for different ways of doing things, not to follow, but to experiment? It is clear from the example of the two communities on Ross Island that this is easier for the smaller place to achieve and that the successes and the benefits can then spread.

After all as Sir Ernest Rutherford said:

We haven’t the money, so we’ve got to think.

Pou Whenua detail carved by Fayne Robinson

Pou Whenua detail carved by Fayne Robinson




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