The Detail: Questions over the new Scott Base

The Detail: Questions over the new Scott Base
Photo credit: Antarctica New Zealand via RNZ

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In this year's Budget one item stood out among the COVID frugality and the billions allocated to economic recovery.

That was the $344 million allocated to the Scott Base redevelopment in Antarctica.

Here was a fabulous new facility that our scientists needed to track climate change, among other world class work. Included was the redevelopment of the Ross Island Wind Farm.

But now questions have been raised about that flash new base. Is it really what the scientists want, or is it a portal to a different purpose in Antarctica - whether it's paving the way for tourism, or stamping our claim to a piece of land no one owns.

Polar expert Dr Alan Hemmings, from the University of Canterbury, has 40 years' Antarctic experience.

"My initial response is that it's profligate," he says.

"Although the narrative that's been spun by station proponents that it's archaic ... and we need this rinky-dink base ... in fact Scott Base has been updated like pretty much every other Antarctic station reasonably regularly over its lifetime. The Hillary Field Centre was only completed five to six years ago." 

So what is the problem with Scott Base?

According to a comprehensive Antarctica New Zealand report from early this year, "the current Scott Base buildings, facilities and associated infrastructure are reaching the end of their functional life and safety and environmental risks are escalating."

And "the base is also becoming increasingly expensive to operate and maintain, and almost infeasible to incrementally renew or upgrade."

The issues include poor functionality with ageing and outdated buildings; life support systems deteriorating and with no backup, a water supply system that is 20 years beyond its design life starting to fail; snow and water coming in through warped and shrinking building cladding; inadequate fire protection; and a wastewater shortfall impacted by shoreline erosion.

Hemmings has read that report and accepts the issues are real, but, "without necessarily being persuaded that a wholesale rebuild is strictly necessary ... or that it justifies spending $350 m plus or minus".

"We have to deal with the requirements to make electricity, gas and water supply safe and efficient. That doesn't mean to say you have to knock the house down to do it."

But Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Sarah Williamson says the cost of renewal at Scott Base is almost as much as the replacement planned. In the last 20 years things have deteriorated badly there - some of the buildings are in such a bad state of repair that they are unsafe. It's not just a series of buildings being replaced - it's the infrastructure of a small town as well.

When parts are found for equipment that is well past its replacement date - the water pump that converts sea water into potable water, for example - not only does the part have to be shipped south, so does a technician with specialist skills.

"They're taking the plane seats that could be made available for scientists," she says.

The ice hotel

Scott Base is a hotch-potch of history and ad-ons that started in 1957 with temporary buildings. By 1962 it was a permanent station with 11 inter-connected buildings. A systematic rebuild started in 1976 and was completed by 1988. The Hillary Field Centre was operational by the summer of 2006 and was upgraded in 2017.

Most of it is going, although the very original hut from the 50s that still sits on the foreshore will remain untouched.

The new base will be constructed in Christchurch and shipped down in parts to be rolled onto new foundations. Some parts of the old structure will be joined with temporary accommodation to house scientists during the change-over. Four years of design work has already been done, and the whole thing should be in place by 2027.

Hemmings has concerns as to some aspects of the design, in particular the hotel-like accommodation which lifts the number of beds from 86 to 100.

"That seems like quite a small increase," he says, "but the building's footprint is increasing by 50 percent."

The new design lifts the accommodation section from basically a high-end backpackers to more like a high-end lodge with stunning views.

"The purpose of the station is not to have glorious Huka Lodge type accommodation," says Hemmings. "Its purpose is to support science programmes - but this doesn't seem to be focused on science.

"Scott Base was essentially a dormitory where you house people on the ice over winter. Most New Zealanders there are doing deep field work ... they're at Cape Bird, the Dry Valleys or flying over ice shelves - the research is largely in the field."

Is part of it to boost our 'show and tell' capabilities?

"They have had this increasing trend to take a whole load of people down to the Antarctic to meet and greet ... this would be a much lovelier place for them to stay. But is that good expenditure of New Zealand's money?"

The prospect of future-tourism proofing the new base raises an absolute 'no' from Williamson.

"Absolutely not," she says. "There is no room for tourists."

Commercial ice tourism has up to this point been limited and discouraged. Other countries on the ice are also doing major work to upgrade their bases, including the Americans at McMurdo Sound and the Australians at Davis Station, where there will be a significant beefing up of their runway capability.

Here comes China

But another reason for this activity could be strategic worry over an increasing Chinese presence on the ice and in southern seas.  

Historically the Western world has had the best access to Antarctica but it now has great anxiety about China's plans there, which are suspected to go beyond the scientific.

 "One function (of building a new base) is to run up the flag, saying 'we have an interest'," says Hemmings. "It's a plausible argument: over the life time of the last Labour - NZ First government quite a lot of defence expenditure came with the rationale in part in relation to activity in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean."

That includes the Navy's largest vessel, the new ice-strengthened tanker the Aotearoa; two Protector Class Offshore Patrol Vessels, the Wellington and Otago, which entered service in 2010 and have strengthened hulls for work in the Southern Ocean; and the replacement of the Orion aircraft with P-8A Poseidons.

"None of these vessels and aircraft are solely or primarily for us in the Antarctic. But an Antarctic rationale has been built into them.

Institutional capture

The Brains Trust behind the new Scott Base proposal is Antarctica NZ, which Hemmings describes as being now almost completely a corporate board. "It's limited to seven people and those are extremely able people but they are drawn from the corporate sector.

"They don't conduct the science, that's from New Zealand universities, research institutes and some government agencies such as meteorological; they do the hardware but not the logistics, that's covered by the air force and navy.

"The one thing Antarctica New Zealand controls is the facilities of Scott Base. It's primed to focus on that - the perfect example of institutional capture."

Hemmings says if they are going to push a proposal, they're going to be persuasive. "They will be able to say it's an operational necessity."

When it comes to opening government purse strings their recommendations are filtered through a thinning number of experts at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which does have an Antarctic unit.

He compares the Scott Base rebuild to that of Christchurch Hospital, where the initial undertakings were reined back.

"Scott Base should be subject to those levels of scrutiny."

Sucking up the science cash

Hemmings says inevitably after millions is spent on such a large project the money for actual research in subsequent years is pared back - a case of, 'you've had your money'.  Williamson says that's not really a worry, and the rebuild will ensure that world class science continues to be carried out in one of the globe's most hostile environments, for the next 50 years. The new base will make it more attractive for the world's best scientists to collaborate with us.

But ultimately Hemmings would like more public discourse about what's being done on the ice.

"Public discussion is limited and so New Zealand doesn't interrogate the issue."


The Detail: Questions over the new Scott Base