At the turn of the twentieth century, Antarctica remained the only continent untouched by humans. In 1895, the 6th International Geographical Congress declared that Antarctica’s ice-choked seas and frozen peaks were the next frontier for scientific discovery, ushering in what has come to be known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Dozens of men, including famed expedition leaders Sir Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, and Carsten Borchgrevnik, answered the call and trekked to the bottom of the planet. They erected prefabricated wooden cabins that served both as homes during the coldest months and laboratories for research into the local climate and ecosystem. Using these cabins as bases, the explorers traversed glaciers and scaled Mt. Erebus, the southernmost volcano on Earth. When WWII diverted the world’s attention, Antarctic investigation was abandoned, leaving behind several expedition huts on the continent. The small wooden buildings were built to withstand the drastic weather conditions only for the few short years that the explorers inhabited them, but, remarkably, after more than a century, the structures are still intact.
How We Helped
The weather patterns in Antarctica have shifted over the past century. Warming in the area has triggered large amounts of precipitation over Ross Island, where the expedition huts are located. Increased visitation (tourism as well as research), microbial infestation, and decay also threatened the survival of these historic structures. Shackleton’s Hut on Cape Royds was Watch listed in 2004, having been nominated by the Antarctic Heritage Trust (AHT). AHT, based in New Zealand, was formed in 1987 to protect the buildings of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. At the time of nomination, the trust had a comprehensive preservation and management plan for all expedition bases, with Shackleton’s hut as its pilot venture. Watch listing catalyzed movement on the project and attracted funding from a variety of sources. Listed again in 2006 and 2008, Shackleton’s hut was included in an aggregated nomination along with Scott’s hut on Cape Evans, his Northern Party base, and Borchgrevnik’s station on Cape Adare, collectively referred to as Scott’s Hut and the Explorers’ Heritage of Antarctica. The repeated Watch listings allowed AHT to expand its preservation efforts, building on the success of each project with continued support from WMF. By 2008, Shackleton’s hut was deemed structurally sound and conservation was complete on the 4,500 artifacts associated with it; AHT progressed with the stabilization of Scott’s hut.
Why It Matters
Portraits of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra still hang inside Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Expedition Hut on Cape Royds in Antarctica. In Scott’s hut on Cape Evans, canned food sits on the shelves, the London Illustrated News lies carelessly tossed on a desk in one corner, and the darkroom of expedition photographer Herbert Pontings is intact with chemicals and plates. The explorers’ huts that dot the stark landscape of Antarctica provide a record of unique men in a unique place. Along with supplies, scientific equipment for measuring temperature and weather conditions was left abandoned in the cabins. The early twentieth-century readings of these instruments can be compared to current values to better understand the effects of climate change on Antarctica. The buildings remain shrines to the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and its achievements.