After the Second World War the United States – a comparative latecomer to the field – led the exploration of Antarctica. Using 13 ships, 23 aircraft and more than 4,000 men, Operation High Jump surveyed more than 6 million square kilometres of Antarctica and photographed almost two-thirds of its coastline. During and after the war Argentina – responding to a 1940 Chilean territorial claim to a section of Antarctica, as well as to British claims – claimed jurisdiction over slices of the continent.
International Geophysical Year
Not having made any formal territorial claims of its own, the United States was anxious to promote non-nationalistic cooperation in Antarctica. American scientists’ 1950 proposals for a year devoted to international polar studies developed into plans to hold an International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957–58. New Zealand was formally asked to consider setting up a research station on Ross Island.
While plans for the IGY were being formulated, so were proposals by an Englishman, Vivian Fuchs, for a Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE). A plan for a combined Commonwealth expedition to undertake the first ever crossing from one side of Antarctica to the other (something that Ernest Shackleton’s 1914–17 expedition had failed to do) was eventually agreed upon. In May 1955 the New Zealand government announced it would contribute to the cost of the TAE and establish a base in the Ross Dependency.
Just two years earlier Edmund Hillary had been one of the first two people in the world to climb Mt Everest, and he was an obvious choice to head New Zealand’s contribution to the TAE. In November 1956 HMNZS Endeavour left New Zealand and took TAE members and a construction team to Ross Island, where Scott Base was built. It was formally opened on 20 January 1957, and since then has served as New Zealand’s main base in Antarctica, housing a continual stream of explorers, scientists and support staff.
One of the key tasks for Hillary and the New Zealand TAE contingent was to set up a series of food and fuel supply depots along a route from the South Pole to the Ross Sea. Fuchs and his team would use the supplies on the second half of their continental crossing. From mid-October to mid-December 1957, a party led by Hillary used three Ferguson tractors to establish the depots. They then pushed on to the South Pole, arriving there on 4 January 1958. Fuchs’s party arrived 16 days later, and then followed Hillary’s route to the Ross Sea. On 2 March 1958 Fuchs’s party – accompanied by Hillary – arrived at Scott Base, successfully completing the first overland crossing of Antarctica.
The IGY was also a significant success. Twelve countries cooperated, setting up a total of 55 scientific stations in Antarctica and the subantarctic islands. The New Zealand Commission for the Environment later described the IGY as ‘undoubtedly a major milestone in Antarctica as well as international science’.1 Findings from scientists, geologists, glaciologists, oceanographers and seismologists in Antarctica and around the world were pooled.
From exploration to science
From the mid-20th century scientific investigation rather than exploration began to drive activity in Antarctica. New Zealand scientists worked from three stations in Antarctica:
- Scott Base on Ross Island (New Zealand’s main base since 1957)
- Harrison Laboratory on Cape Bird (from 1966)
- Vanda Station in the McMurdo Dry Valley (1969–95).
An additional joint New Zealand/United States facility, Hallett Station (1957–73), was set up at Cape Hallett. Temporary camps, with tents or portable buildings, were also used.
Christchurch became so much a part of life for Americans stationed in the Antarctic that it was nicknamed ‘Cheech’ – based on Chch, the standard abbreviation for the city.
Operation Deep Freeze
The United States’ main staging post for flights to and from Antarctica is its Operation Deep Freeze base at Christchurch airport. New Zealand and the US have maintained a consistently close relationship over Antarctica since 1955. This continued even in the 1980s when the overall relationship was strained by New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policies. It has also survived attempts by Australia to persuade the Americans to move their operational base to Tasmania.