Promoting the Legacy of Antarctic Science

UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and IAATO working together to conserve historic sites on the Antarctic Peninsula

By Rachel Morgan, Director of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust


Left: Cat Totty works her  magic with a paint brush, part of the maintenance program at Port Lockroy, the most visited site in the Antarctic

As long as I can remember, it was my dream to work in Antarctica. Having now done so for the last 14 years, I've not lost the thrill of seeing the first albatross or first iceberg, and I've returned even more enthusiastic and convinced of the value of our mission.

While I was South for just over two months last season, I immersed myself in the everyday chores undertaken by the four hard-working staff at our manned base at Port Lockroy. But I also had a chance to stand back and take an overview of procedures and operations, reflecting on the role of huts like Port Lockroy in history. Although Port Lockroy was built in 1943 as part of Operation Tabarin establishing a British presence on the Antarctic Peninsula, it continued with scientific research, particularly of the ionosphere, until it closed in 1962.

Early members of Operation Tabarin and the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey had participated in the British Graham Land Expedition of the 1930s. This self-contained and highly successful expedition was able to prove that the Peninsula was indeed such and not an archipelago as had been previously thought.

Right: Bingham and Rymill, of the the British Graham Land Expedition, two of the links between the heroic age and modern Antarctic science today

That expedition itself had its roots right back in the heroic age of exploration. Many of its members had cut their teeth in Svalbard and Greenland seeking their early advice from the likes of Raymond Priestley and Frank Debenham, both on Scott's Terra Nova expedition, and James Wordie, the geologist on Shackleton's Endurance expedition.

Scott's scientific legacy continued through the 1950s, establishing the long-term scientific monitoring and data collection that has been the foundation of the world-class science now being undertaken by the National Science Foundation, British Antarctic Survey and other national operators.

Port Lockroy, along with five other British bases, have now been designated as historic sites. This physical legacy is looked after by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. The most recent historic site, Damoy Refuge, just around the corner from Port Lockroy, was closed in 1993. It is an example of the "interim period" of Antarctic science when skidoos and aircraft were transitioning over from dogs and ships. Being only a small boat ride from Port Lockroy, Damoy is easy to manage, with a new coat of paint every year.

The other AHT sites are more remote. With Michael Powell – the carpenter who has also worked on Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds – I also visited another of the historic sites we look after, Wordie House. Wordie House was built in 1947 on the site of the Northern Base of the British Graham Land Expedition (1934-37).

The other historic sites on the Peninsula all stem from the golden age survey with sledge and dogs from the 1950s: Horseshoe, Stonington, and Detaille. The first two have been managed from the modern British research station at Rothera since their closure but Detaille is another story. It was only open for three years and closed in 1959 unexpectedly when sea ice prevented re-supply. The Trust undertook major work during the 2010-11 season, the first repairs in 52 years. But sea ice prevented the work party (and indeed anyone) getting in last season. We will try again this summer.

Left: Base ‘W' at Detaille Island has been virtually untouched for 53 years (photo by Kristine Hannon)

Looking ahead, the Trust intends to work at sites further south, including Stonington Island, where we would like to work in partnership with the National Science Foundation and US State Department to make sure East Base is made structurally secure and weather tight. East Base is America's earliest remaining camp, built in 1940 by Admiral Richard Byrd's US Antarctic Service Expedition. It was abandoned in a hurry in 1941 when the US entered the Second World War. It was re-occupied by Finn Ronne's private expedition in 1947-8, but has been abandoned ever since.

In preserving these buildings and their artifacts, we are able to pass on to visitors the knowledge of this scientific legacy through on-site interpretation – seeing is believing. These visitors return home as Antarctic Ambassadors, with a much better understanding and appreciation for Antarctic conservative efforts.

Right: East Base is the oldest American building in the Antarctic. Meteorological tower (photo by Tudor Morgan)

The Trust could not do its work without the full support of key IAATO operators such as Lindblad Expeditions. As the company's Captain Lief Skog recently noted, "The enjoyment of our National Geographic Explorer guests is directly linked to the quality of their experience in the Peninsula locations that we visit. It has been both exciting and rewarding to support the UKAHT in their efforts to maintain and preserve historical sites like Wordie House and Detaille. We look forward to continuing in this capacity to help ensure that these sites have a future for all of us to enjoy."







Above: Cat Totty trades in her paint brush to help a visitor with a stamp purchase. Stamp sales from the Post Office at Port Lockroy help fund the upkeep of the historic sites in the Antarctic (photo by Rick Price)

Right: Michael Powell, right, helps unload stores for Port Lockroy from the National Geographic Explorer (photo byYlva Grams)

During the past year, the centenary of Amundsen and Scott reaching the South Pole brought media coverage hitherto unrivalled for Antarctica. Whether it is David Attenborough describing a seal being pulled off an iceberg by killer whales on BBC's Frozen Planet, articles in the papers about Captain Scott and his scientific legacy, or Ben Fogle moved to tears in Scott's hut, no one can fail to know a little more than they did about Antarctica. The Trust is proud to be part of this.

For more information on the work of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, visit their website.

Below: Rachel gets to grips with the routine maintenance of Port Lockroy (photo by Ylva Grams)