Sunday, January 21, 2001

Preserving the huts: Protecting the heritage

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Almost exactly 99 years ago, construction began on the first building on Ross Island: Robert Scott’s Discovery Hut. Now, researchers and fundraisers are stepping up the effort to preserve and restore the historic huts in the Ross Sea area.

Ross Island’s three huts – Scott’s on Hut Point and Cape Evans and Ernest Shackleton's on Cape Royds – are the primary targets for preservation, though there are over 30 historic sites in the region, including memorial crosses and supply depots left by the early Antarctic explorers.

"We have the responsibility for the practical management of Heroic Age sites in the Ross Sea area," said Nigel Watson, executive director of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, a New Zealand-based, non-profit organization.

To date, the AHT has hired conservators to come to the Antarctic to slow or halt the decline of metals, woods and fibers at historic sites. The trust also maintains a collection of artifacts in Christchurch, which are being worked on and will eventually, Watson said, be returned to their original locations.

But the trust’s work so far has only slowed the rate of decay of rare historic artifacts. "We really haven’t halted the decline," Watson said. "As you look through the huts you can see the decay. Don’t take it for granted, because one day it might not be there," he said, noting that one of the two buildings at Cape Adare is no longer standing.

Watson said the trust is now looking at different approaches to maintaining each historic hut site, ranging from a possible full restoration of the Discovery Hut to its original condition, to preserving a hut at Cape Evans or Cape Royds in something close to its current condition, though treating the materials to prevent future decay.

This could cost several million dollars, Watson said. The AHT relies on donations from the public for its operating budget. The money must fund responsible care for the huts, Watson said.

To that end, the conservation effort is backed up by scientific research. Bob Blanchette of the University of Minnesota, and Roberta Farrell of the University of Waikato in New Zealand are conducting a joint effort, funded in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation, to study the decay and deterioration of wood in the historic huts.

The main source of damage to the wood is erosion. High winds sandblast the outer walls of the huts. This is visible, Blanchette said, particularly on the beams supporting the verandah of the Discovery Hut.

There is also chemical deterioration. The high salt content of the snow in the area, due both to the nearby seawater and to gas emissions from Mount Erebus, weakens the wood fiber.

Further, Blanchette said, fungi within the huts are attacking the materials that are sheltered from the storms to which the outer walls are subjected. In addition, there seems to be a soil fungus attacking the wood foundations. It is not clear, Blanchette said, how this fungus arrived at the historic sites or how it retained its ability to attack wood in a wood-less environment.

"The fungi that we’re finding are very unusual and appear to be unique to the Antarctic," he said.

Part of the research is also looking at the impact of visitors to the hut, who introduce dirt, heat and moisture into closed-up buildings. Blanchette’s group has installed temperature and humidity monitors in the huts, and is trying to keep close track of the length of time visitors spend in the huts.

Blanchette and Watson are optimistic. Watson noted that the centenaries of the construction of each hut are coming up within the next decade. That provides a unique historical angle on fundraising, he said, which may have very positive results for the huts’ preservation.

Blanchette also believes that research and conservation can work hand in hand to restore and protect the huts before they disappear.

"It’s not too late," Blanchette said.