Multimillion-dollar revamp for Antarctic Base

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 05:00 10/06/2014

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Two new rooms for important guests are part of a three-year $3.9 million refurbishment of New Zealand's 57-year-old Scott Base in Antarctica.

The upgrade focused on ensuring it would better support scientists with their research, Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Peter Beggs said.

Stage one was being completed by Antarctica NZ staff this winter and included reconfiguring an eight-bed bunkroom into two single rooms with ensuites, plus a communal lounge for "invited visitors", with a price tag of $161,000.

The base's administration block was also being transformed during winter into an open-plan area, costing $293,000, but the major project was a $3.4m science facility in its Hillary Field Centre.

It would be the first time ensuites were offered to important guests on the icy continent, but was a minor part of the refurbishment, Beggs said.

He stressed they were not VIP rooms, and would not have double beds.

"The rationale was to allow appropriate invited guests, such as ministers and the prime minister, a private area in order for appropriate government business to be conducted. In the case of the prime minister, it also allowed for security detail to be appropriately accommodated. Invited visitors will continue to dine and socialise with the rest of Scott Base staff and science personnel."

The rooms would normally stay in use as two four-bed bunkrooms but would be switched over when high-level invited guests visited.

Prime Minister John Key was the base's latest highest-profile visitor, travelling south for his second Antarctica trip in January last year, but other recent visitors included Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully and Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman.

Beggs said about eight to 10 invited visitors were likely to use the new rooms this summer season.

In the past, such high-profile visitors had to share communal toilets and showers with other staff.

Next week Antarctica NZ's board would consider the project's stage two, Hillary Field Centre's transformation, for final approval.

Work was already under way with potential tenderers and the build was expected to start next winter. The base was full of scientists during summertime so such projects were only possible during the quite dark winter months in Antarctica.

Project management offered unique challenges with everything for the next winter's build needing to be packed into containers and shipped down to Antarctica next January, Beggs said.

"You need everything packed, right down to the nails. It's not like you can go to Bunnings if you need something."

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Evidence that improvements were needed came last summer when a big storm damaged the ice pier where cargo ships normally docked by McMurdo Station, the United States' main Antarctic base.

That meant some containers were unable to be sent back to New Zealand, including scientific samples, forcing Antarctica NZ to alter its flight schedule to ensure those samples got back safely.

PASSENGERS TO THE ICE STOPPED 

The Defence Force has stopped carrying passengers to Antarctica on its Boeing 757s until an independent accident report clears it over last October's white-out landing.

"Following the incident in October 2013, a passenger restriction was placed on southbound B757 flights to the ice as a precaution," a Defence Force spokesman said.

It had continued picking up passengers on the return leg to New Zealand, but only cargo was taken south.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully and 116 other passengers, plus 11 crew, were on a B757 when the plane had to land in a white-out. Conditions had deteriorated at Pegasus ice runway after the aircraft was beyond the point of safe return to New Zealand so it had to land. McCully said later he had flown into Afghanistan under fire but the Antarctica flight was "right up there". "It was not a very good situation to be in." The Defence Force confirmed the crew did everything right in terms of handling events on the day, its spokesman said.

It was waiting for findings from an external investigation by the Transport Accident Investigation Commission.

- The Dominion Post

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