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Delivered goes sub-zero with Nick Murdoch for Antarctic Logistics

The Logistics Manager for the redevelopment of the Scott Base Antarctic research station reveals what it's like delivering the goods to the coldest, harshest place on Earth.

Nick Murdoch is a well-travelled man. As a former transport manager and logistics co-ordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and a former Global Head of Aid & Relief Services at DHL Global Forwarding, he's taken part in humanitarian missions in Niger, Malawi, Pakistan and Bangladesh, among other places. But even he had never been to Antarctica before, at least until last year, when he became Logistics Manager for the Scott Base Redevelopment at Antarctica New Zealand.

Scott Base is New Zealand's only Antarctic research station, an eye-catching outcrop of green buildings located on a low volcanic headland called Pram Point at the southern end of Ross Island, 1350km from the South Pole. Established in 1957, the base was built for New Zealand’s participation in the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, led by explorers Vivian Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary, the first climber to have reached the summit of Mount Everest. Since its establishment, the site has been continuously occupied and has long had a remit to support cutting-edge scientific missions in Antarctica. During the summer season — which runs from October to February — more than 300 people stay on the base.


The amount of funding announced by the New Zealand government for the Scott Base project.


The number of people who visit the research station every year.

“Scott Base was always one of those places on my bucket list,” admits Nick, a New Zealand native, based in Christchurch. “I'm now in an extremely fortunate position because I went there in February for the first time to understand the site's complexities and challenges — and, thanks to my job, I'll be going a lot in the future.”

The base's last major renovation took place in the early 1980s, which is why its redevelopment has become so crucial. That's where Nick comes in. As Logistics Manager, he is responsible for ensuring that all materials, labor, fuel and more are delivered to the base in good order and on time so that construction can be completed. “The base is starting to show its age,” says Nick. “We have to future-proof it to ensure that New Zealand has a presence on Antarctica for the next 50 years — one that is safe, fit-for-purpose, and able to support scientific research in a more environmentally friendly way.”

It is, however, a massive project, taking place in the coldest, driest, harshest location on Earth. The base's 12 separate buildings will be demolished and replaced by three large interconnected ones, consisting of an accommodation, dining and welfare building, a science and management building and an engineering and storage building. A new wind-farm will also be installed. Work is expected to be completed by 2030, increasing occupancy from 86 beds to 100 beds.

“For me, it's a new set of challenges and a new learning experience,” says Nick. “Because of the environment and the weather, every upside comes with a downside. So, it really is a unique job, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

What were your first impressions of Scott Base?

It's set in an awesome landscape which is also incredibly harsh, of course, and risky. The temperature range when I was there last summer was between -5 and -15; but you can take at least another 10 degrees off that because of the windchill factor. It's also a very dry environment, so if you see snow flying around, it's not necessarily because it's snowing — it's just blowing in the wind. There was open water in front of the base because the sea ice had broken, so I experienced the joy of seeing whales and the odd penguin. 

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The aim is to pre-construct the base's new buildings in New Zealand and ship them to Antarctica in large modular sections. What's the reason for that?

First, health and safety is paramount. Constructing the buildings remotely means fewer people will have work on site, and outside, in Antarctica. That's important because, down there, everything takes longer than you think, partly because you're wearing lots of layers of clothing, but also because everything is just a wee bit more difficult in terms of productivity. Plus, in New Zealand, we can make the buildings all year-round.

What are the main challenges of transporting materials to Scott Base?

Planning is key, because you can't just pop down the road to the local hardware store to get a part that you've missed. Essentially, everything you need – including food – has to be on a ship, or on a flight. Unfortunately, due to the location, there's a very narrow shipping window. During the summer season we potentially have up to three or so flights a week coming in from Christchurch, carrying passengers and some cargo. The problem is, every piece of cargo capacity is precious, and because of the weather there's no guarantee that anything will happen when it's meant to. Flight delays are common.

What are the issues around transporting cargo by ship?

The buildings we're making have to be constructed to withstand the movement that will inevitably arise during the voyage across the Southern Ocean, and then being transported from the ship to their final destination. Again, the shipping window is tiny: there might only be one or two cargo vessels a season. Plus any cargo ship will require an icebreaker to break a channel through the sea ice in order to get into 'port'. A temporary pier is needed to allow the ship to dock.

How do you store cargo when it arrives?

Items have to be stored in containers. We do have the option of storing equipment out on the ice shelf, but have to make sure everything is secured because of the very strong winds. Of course, even when we protect that cargo from the elements as best we can, we know we're going to have to dig it out of the ice and snow at the start of the season. We also have to manage materials that can't be frozen. For example, in the extreme cold, the material nature of steel changes — so those types of issues have to be taken into account during design and construction, too.

What's the best thing about your job?

I find logistics fascinating, but I also get to see a world outside of my job. Even though I'm not directly involved in it, I see some of the planning that goes into the programs and science work that goes on at the base. For example, there's a big traverse operation every season where a team and a group of vehicles head off across the ice shelf, traveling for days on end to set up or support science programs 1000 km from the base. Or I'll hear about the planning and support for divers who are diving under the sea ice to conduct experiments. I find all of that so interesting. Being part of this organization is pretty awesome. ― Tony Greenway

Published: June 2021

Images: Nick Murdoch

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