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  • Discovery, science and heritage

    Antarctica has long been a location of intrigue and adventure – even before humans were sure it actually existed. People predicted the location of a vast southern continent to ‘balance’ the Arctic land mass.

    Legends say Māori navigator Ui-te-Rangiora led a fleet of waka into the Southern Ocean in the 7th century, and sealing and naval expeditions sighted Antarctica in the 1800s. By the end of that century, the icy continent had become the focus of international scientific and geographic exploration.

    Nature of science

    Science has both social and cultural influences. In 1895, the International Geographical Congress called upon scientific societies throughout the western world to promote – and fund – Antarctic exploration.

    Five expedition parties built bases in the Ross Sea area of Antarctica, beginning with the British Antarctic Expedition of Cape Adare in 1899, followed by Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery (1901–1904) and Terra Nova (1910–1913) expeditions, Ernest Shackleton’s 1907–1909 Expedition to Cape Royds and finally the original Scott Base for the 1955–1958 Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

    From the very beginning, these expeditions were as much about science as they were about adventure and fascination with the unknown. Huts were built to house people, supplies, animals and scientific equipment, including the latest technology of the day. By the time Robert Scott made his second trip to Antarctica in 1910, his equipment included tractors, photographic supplies, telephones and a gramophone to play music for times of relaxation.

    The hut is becoming the most comfortable dwelling-place imaginable. We have made ourselves a truly seductive home, within the walls of which peace, quiet and comfort remains supreme.

    Robert Falcon Scott, Terra Nova Hut (1910–1913)

    The huts and much of equipment and provisions were left behind when the expedition parties sailed from Antarctica. When the Terra Nova crew left in 1913, it was noted: “We have left at Cape Evans an outfit and stores that would see a dozen resourceful men through one summer and winter at least.”

    Care and restoration of the huts

    New Zealanders first became involved in hut restoration during the Trans-Antarctic Expedition during 1956–1958. They removed ice and snow and cleaned up the huts when time allowed.

    Volunteers and staff from Scott Base began formal restoration work in 1960. Eventually, the Antarctic Heritage Trust was established with multiyear, multimillion dollar programmes to conserve the huts and their extensive artefact collections.

    Engineers, microbiologists and chemists work to make the huts weathertight, remove rust and study the bacteria and native fungi that cause decay. Conservators like Lizzie Meeks are working with the 8,500 artefacts left from what is known as the heroic era of Antarctic exploration. Conservators also look after a piece of more recent history – Scott Base’s remaining original building, Hut A, better known as Hillary’s Hut.

    It’s very Kiwi. It smells of kerosene and adventure. You can almost imagine Sir Ed walking in and brushing the snow off his boots and putting a cup of tea on. It’s where science and adventure kind of collide.

    Nigel Latta

    On Thin Ice: Nigel Latta in Antarctica

    Watch Series 1/Episode 1

    • Scott’s Terra Nova base (video timecode 37:15–42:30)

    Watch Series 1/Episode 2

    • Scott’s Discovery base (video timecode 9:10–13:10)
    • Scott Base’s original Hut A (video timecode 13:10–15:20)

    Saving the historic huts

    Nigel says the historic huts symbolise the overlap of science, history and adventure. Early scientists were interested in mapping and surveying the land’s geology and biology. Today, biochemists, microbiologists and other experts are making discoveries on a very different scale – studying microorganisms and fungi adapted to living in the extreme cold. The article Saving the historic huts explains the work of these modern ‘explorers’

    Activity idea

    It’s less than 200 years since people first set foot on Antarctica. Explore this timeline, Antarctica – Early Discoveries to 2007, to see some key dates in the early discoveries of this icy continent.

    Data fans and number crunchers will enjoy this PDF set of science data from the team working to save historic huts. Challenge your students to explain the relationship between temperature and relative humidity, indoors and out. (This is good practice for the science capability ‘Interpret representations).

    Useful links

    Fascinating stories about the five explorers’ bases and the people who established them are found on the Antarctic Heritage Trust website.

    New Zealand and Antarctica share a long and rich history. Find out more with the New Zealand history website.

    Wikipedia details the heroic age of Antarctic exploration.

    On-going funding is needed to restore and protect Hillary’s Hut. This Radio New Zealand report explains restoration issues and has audio of Sir Edmund Hillary discussing his Antarctic adventures.

    Read about the extreme conservation work required to preserve these huts in this ArchitectureNow article.

      Published 24 September 2015, Updated 20 February 2021 Referencing Hub articles
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