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Antarctic conservation blog archive

This blog describes what it's like to spend time in Antarctica conserving artefacts from the explorer's hut left behind by Captain Robert Falcon Scott in 1911 when he journeyed to the South Pole.

It was written by members of the summer and winter conservation teams from 2006 to 2010.

Even Antarctic explorers have birthdays!

Mindy, Monday 14 June 2010

Temperature: -26.5°C
Wind Speed: 10 knots
Temp with wind chill: approximately -42°C
Moonrise: below horizon
Moonset: below horizon

“Tuesday, June 6 [1911] - … It is my birthday, a fact I might easily have forgotten, but my kind people did not. At lunch an immense birthday cake made its appearance and we were photographed assembled about it…” (Captain Robert Falcon Scott)

Revelry continued that night with a fine dinner of “…seal soup, roast mutton and red currant jelly, fruit salad, asparagus and chocolate…” (Scott). By all accounts it was a festive occasion. Sadly, this was the last birthday Scott would celebrate, as he and 4 other British Antarctic Expedition members perished returning from the South Pole in early 1912.

Captain Scott's last birthday dinner, 6 June 1911 © Herbert Ponting / Scott Polar Research Institute

Captain Scott’s last birthday dinner, 6 June 1911 © Herbert Ponting / Scott Polar Research Institute

Fast-forward nearly 100 years to present day Scott Base, where we also spent the 6th of June celebrating Scott’s birthday. We all take turns preparing dinner on Sundays, and coincidentally I had volunteered to cook supper that night. Hardly anything as fancy as Clissold, cook for the British Antarctic Expedition, had prepared – just a humble spaghetti and meatball dinner. And, despite having the night off, our chef Bobbie agreed to make the dessert. Scott’s 2010 birthday cake was decorated as a “Union Jack” – ceremoniously cut by Tom, Scott Base Winter Base Manager.

Tom, Scott Base Winter Manager, makes the first cut in Scott's birthday cake © AHT / M Bell

Tom, Scott Base Winter Manager, makes the first cut in Scott’s birthday cake © AHT / M Bell

Glasses raised, our modest celebration closed with a toast to Captain Scott. The sentiment was plain and simply stated – “…to Scott”.

Puzzling objects

Jane, Thursday 10 June 2010

Temperature: -32°C
Wind Speed: 15 knots
Temp with wind chill: -45°C
Sunrise: None
Sunset: None

While conserving objects from Captain Scott’s 1910 expedition base at Cape Evans, we recently found a number of objects made of layers of wood. We are often fortunate enough to see the objects we are conserving in historic photos from the expeditions, which can help us identify them or associate them with a particular activity. Unfortunately, this is not the case with these elusive objects. Some of them had what appeared to be a bellows at one end and a paper diaphragm inside.

Mysterious wooden objects with bellows from Cape Evans © Antarctic Heritage Trust

Mysterious wooden objects with bellows from Cape Evans © Antarctic Heritage Trust

Mysterious wooden objects with bellows from Cape Evans © Antarctic Heritage Trust

Mysterious wooden objects with bellows from Cape Evans © Antarctic Heritage Trust

We pondered over their function in the lab, consulted experts and even asked some of the guests on one of our open evenings. But, we are still not sure. It has been suggested that they may be part of the telephone system installed at Cape Evans which connected the hut to Discovery Hut (the expedition base associated with Captain Scott’s 1901 expedition at Hut Point) and two of their scientific observation posts. Another suggestion was that they could be parts of one of the two pianolas brought to the Ice.

Cecil Meares at the pianola in January 1912 © Herbert Ponting

Cecil Meares at the pianola in January 1912 © Herbert Ponting

Could the objects be from the pianola?

We would welcome any suggestions as to what they could be, as we are at a loss!

Clear as day

Mindy, Monday 7 June 2010

Temperature: -31.9°C
Wind Speed: 15 knots
Temp with wind chill: approximately -55°C
Moonrise: above horizon
Moonset: above horizon

‘The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below…’ (Clement Clarke Moore, ‘The Night Before Christmas’).

I know it’s strange to be quoting Christmas stories in June. Still, it seems appropriate - it’s exactly what runs through my head when I step outside at this time of year to find the moon shining as bright as the sun. On clear days with an almost full moon, I don’t usually have to turn on my head torch when I’m out and about. When the landscape is brightly lit by the moon’s reflection, you can see as clearly as anything for miles and miles.

Parked at the base of Castle Rock © AHT / M Bell

Parked at the base of Castle Rock © AHT / M Bell

On a recent recreational trip, the view from the base of Castle Rock was just this perfect. Climbing the hill to overlook the low-lying clouds that blanketed the ice shelf, we were treated to an expansive snow-covered landscape illuminated by the moon.

A Pistenbully and a great view out over the Ross Ice Shelf © AHT / M Bell

A Pistenbully and a great view out over the Ross Ice Shelf © AHT / M Bell

It’s one of the scenes of Antarctica that enchants me the most, and a breathtaking reminder that Antarctic winter isn’t always dark and forbidding. The sun may be gone for a few months and the days generally cold, but there’s no reason we can’t enjoy amazing scenery, care of ‘Old Man Moon’.

Lighting up the dark

Nicola, Friday 4 June 2010

Temperature: -27°C
Wind Speed: 10 knots
Temp with wind chill: -37°C

Looking out of the windows at Scott Base, all I can see is darkness, and it’s easy to think there is not much to see outside. However, during walks around the base a whole new world is opening up; a negative one to that of the 24-hour daylight we experienced when we first arrived, but just as beautiful. On fine days the moonlight reflects off the snow and icy landscape, there are bright starry skies, and phenomena such as moon-dogs and auroras.

I’m finding that even with a modern camera, trying to photograph these subtle winter effects is difficult, but for Ponting (the photographer on Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13) it posed huge technical challenges. He overcame some of these by using long exposure times and by illuminating scenes and people with artificial light from chemical flash powders.

A flashlight candle found in Ponting's darkroom at Cape Evans © Antarctic Heritage Trust

A flashlight candle found in Ponting’s darkroom at Cape Evans. The fuse on the outside of the celluloid tube would have pushed into the powdered contents and lit up, giving a bright light for 30 seconds. Finger prints on the outside are original and may belong to Ponting. © Antarctic Heritage Trust

During the summer I had already worked on bottles of magnesium flash powder in the Antarctic Heritage Trust Reserve Collection at Canterbury Museum (See blog October 5th 2009) so this week I was amazed when I opened up a rusty tin from the darkroom at Cape Evans to find a single remaining flash candle in perfect condition.

Captain Oates and ponies in the stable © H Ponting / SPRI

Captain Oates and ponies in the stable © H Ponting / SPRI

During the winter of 1911 Ponting took many stunning images of the landscape and members of Scott’s expedition working, using flashlight powders and candles; I’m just hoping to come away with a couple of good photos to remind me of my stay here on the ice.

Diary of a Mouse

George, Wednesday 2 June 2010

Temperature: -26°C
Wind Speed: 5 knots
Temp with wind chill: -31°C

Scott Base, Scott Base. T4 heading over to McMurdo, 2 P.O.B.’

‘Copy that T4 – drive safely!’

The Antarctic environment poses special risks to the traveller; storms can come on suddenly, leading to dramatic drops in temperature and reduced visibility, unseen crevices lie beyond the flagged routes, and even familiar terrain can become treacherous in a matter of moments. We all understand the need to watch out for each other, and systems to do this are built into our everyday routines.

Every time someone leaves Scott Base, New Zealand’s Antarctic research base, they need to radio in to say where they are going and how, and then radio again when they reach their destination. Over winter, the call is played over the public announcement system, so that everyone on base hears it.

The person who answers the call is called the mouse. We all take it in turns – once a fortnight – to be on mouse duty for the day. The mouse carries a radio, answers the phones, washes up and cleans the kitchen after dinner, and late in the evening carries out a mouse round. This involves walking around the whole base inside and out making sure all is secure, checking that all the different machines essential to the support of Scott Base, like the generator and boilers, are running well. An eye is kept open for fire hazards and leaks, making sure all non-essential lights are switched off and the doors are shut against the cold and snow.

George in Mouse mode, minus the ears! © J Hamill / AHT

George in Mouse mode, minus the ears! © J Hamill / AHT

When the last check-box is ticked and everyone’s whereabouts accounted for, Scott Base looks safe and sound for another night and the mouse is ready for bed!

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