How New Zealand's link with Antarctica helps us navigate our mobile phone maps

Aurora above Scott Base
The Scott Base Geomagnetic Observatory is one of the most important in the world. Photo credit: Supplied / Antartica New Zealand / Kyle McQuilkan

Every time we open a map on our phones in Aotearoa we strengthen our bond with Antarctica, with some of the data coming from the Scott Base Geomagnetic Observatory.

As well as data for those smartphone maps, geomagnetic measurements from Scott Base are used for air and ship navigation, monitoring space weather, aurora forecasting and modelling the Earth's geological and geophysical activity.

However, upcoming changes thanks to the Scott Base Redevelopment Project required a new geomagnetic observatory to be installed last summer - and it's now been collecting data for the past six months.

It's currently operating in parallel with the current observatory which will be decommissioned in the summer, providing a year's overlap of data.

Jon Ager, Scott Base redevelopment project director, said the new base being built would have impacted the existing observatory at Scott Base, hence the new observatory.

"The new Scott Base will be made of steel – a kryptonite to geomagnetic measurements which need to be collected in quiet magnetic settings," he said.

"A new geomagnetic observatory was needed to make sure the integrity of these nationally and internationally important datasets is maintained and accurate measurements continue.

The new base was being built to secure Aotearoa's presence in Antarctica, particularly its "world leading" science programme for another 50 years, Ager said.

"It's important that the work we're doing to build the new base doesn't obstruct the science we are there to support."

A survey of Scott Base and the surrounding area in 2019 and 2020 found that Arrival Heights, only 3kms from the base, was the ideal location for the new observatory.

It's a magnetically quiet location and an Antarctic Specially Protected Area under the Antarctic Treaty, Antarctica New Zealand said.

The Kākāriki/green huts will match the colour of the new Scott Base, as voted by the New Zealand public earlier this year.

The Scott Base Geomagnetic Observatory in Antarctica is one of the most important geomagnetic observatories in the world due to its proximity to the South Pole.

The observatory has been running uninterrupted since 1957, when New Zealand's only Antarctic station was established by Sir Edmund Hillary and his team.

Dr Tanja Petersen, project leader of the geomagnetism project at GNS Science - which runs the observatories - said it's part of a network of observatories distributed around the world that monitor the long-term changes of the Earth's magnetic field.

Scientists can access this data for their research.

"The Earth's magnetic field is a huge energy shield that extends into space and protects us from the solar wind - a stream of charged particles that bombard Earth," she said.

"Without the magnetic field, the atmosphere as we know it would not exist."