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Sheltering Science at the End of the Earth: Part 1

December 06, 2023

The tiny Antarctic field camp at Cape Shirreff protected NOAA scientists for decades. They returned the favor with plenty of TLC.

Black and white photo of the old Cape Shirreff field camp sitting in snow in the foreground. Behind that is a strip of ocean, and behind that are snow-covered mountains with the tops shrouded in clouds. Cape Shirreff. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Doug Krause

Cape Shirreff

From the deck of the Research Vessel Laurence M. Gould, Doug Krause can smell Cape Shirreff before he can see it.

The Gould arrives each year at Livingston Island—part of the South Shetland Islands — after a 4-day voyage across the punishing stretch of ocean between the tip of South America and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula called the Drake Passage. Clouds and fog usually obscure any views of nearby land.

But Krause always knows he’s here. It’s like coming home.

“I’ve spent 16 summers — well over 3 years — living at Cape Shirreff. It smells like a mixture of fresh, cold air blowing down off the top of the glacier dome, mingled with all the smells of the animal colonies. Some mix of elephant seals, Antarctic fur seals, penguins, and even the remnants of animals that haven’t arrived yet for the summer,” says Krause.

Krause is the Program Lead of Pinniped Research for NOAA Fisheries’ U.S. Antarctic Marine Living Resources Program. Each summer—November through February in the southern hemisphere — Krause and a team of four to five scientists spend three months at Cape Shirreff. That’s the program’s field camp on a finger of Livingston Island that juts out into the Southern Ocean. The island is the summer home of breeding Antarctic fur seals, gentoo and chinstrap penguins and — more recently — other predators displaced by climate change. They all have one thing in common: They depend on Antarctic krill for survival and to have the energy for reproduction. Krause and his team monitor their populations in relation to how much krill is available for them to eat each year.

Since his first trip to Antarctica in 2002, Krause has watched the four humble wooden buildings that comprise the field camp, with their peeling green paint and bright red doors, fall further into disrepair. Built in 1996 in rainy, wet conditions, the camp has been in decline almost from its beginning.

“The last time we opened the camp, I was just hoping it would still be habitable. The rot in the joists was so extensive that I was worried that a wall might have come down over the winter, or the roof might have peeled back. Frankly, each field season, I’m just happy to see the camp still standing,” says Krause.

Krause estimates that everyone spends up to 30 percent of their time each field season scrubbing mold, bleaching surfaces, repainting walls, and replacing doors and windows to make the camp safe to inhabit.

A man is on his hands and knees surrounded by two buckets of water. He is using a scrub brush to scrub mold from a wooden floor.
Scrubbing mold at camp opening. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Sergio Morales

“Sometimes science priorities have to take a backseat, because we need a safe place to live and to conduct research,” says Krause.

For almost a decade, the program has grappled with what to do about the deteriorating camp. Conducting field research in Antarctica costs more than $1 million per year—nearly a third of our annual budget—in logistics, personnel, science equipment, provisions, and camp maintenance. With no foreseeable increase in funding and no way to pay for a normal field season and rebuilding the camp in the same year, the choices were dismal. We had two options. First, pause science for a year and interrupt a valuable time series of animal population data in an environment where climate change is having profound negative impacts. Or steam full speed ahead with science, knowing that with each passing year the camp would decay even more.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Science in Antarctica—mainly facilitated in the U.S. by the National Science Foundation —screeched nearly to a halt in 2020 as Antarctic programs all over the world attempted to keep COVID-19 from infiltrating the continent. We rely on NSF ships to support the Cape Shirreff field camp, and were forced to cancel the 2020 field season. With no way to send people to Antarctica for at least a year, we finally could use our funds to replace the decrepit camp.

Students at the University of Colorado designed and constructed a new facility in a gravel lot on the university campus in downtown Denver. Teams then disassembled and shipped the new structures to the southern hemisphere to be reassembled at Cape Shirreff during the 2022–23 field season from November through February.

While the prospect of a new, safe, warm camp is appealing, replacing the existing camp is bittersweet.

“The old camp isn’t perfect, but it took care of us,” says Krause. “These are just a few tiny buildings on the edge of the planet in one of the stormiest, most challenging places on earth, and those buildings, every year, stepped up and took care of us. Every time you were cold and hungry, every time you needed shelter from a storm, every time you needed to celebrate a holiday away from your family and friends, those buildings were there, and they’re wonderful.”

With the 2022 field season wrapped up and Phase 1 of erecting the new camp completed, the scientists who have spent months—sometimes years— at Cape Shirreff are reflecting. They are looking back at their time there and at what the camp meant to them and to science in Antarctica.

An aerial view of the old U.S. Antarctic Marine Living Resources Program’s field camp on Seal Island. The camp buildings are on a beach in the lower right corner, and they are surrounded on three sides by outcroppings with penguin colonies on them. The ocean is across the top with some waves crashing on the shore.
Aerial view of the original Seal Island field camp. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Roger Hewitt

Constructing the Original Cape Shirreff Field Camp

The original Cape Shirreff field camp was built to replace the field camp on Seal Island, about 200 miles northeast of Livingston Island. While Seal Island was an ideal location for studying krill predators, the steep cliffs and precarious landing beach made the site too dangerous to maintain.

“There was always the possibility that some part of the cliffs above had fallen on the camp during our absence,” said Roger Hewitt, who was Head Oceanographer for the program in the 1990s and one of the first to scout out the new site at Cape Shirreff. “One year we discovered that the outhouse was flattened by a Volkswagen Beetle-sized boulder, and in another year a natural rock arch over a cliff trail collapsed. Ultimately, this is why we had to leave an otherwise incredible field site.”

The program chose Cape Shirreff because it was home to multiple species of interest, and because it was already conducting oceanographic surveys just offshore of Cape Shirreff to study krill abundance. Hewitt, as the primary small boat operator at the time, also appreciated the landing beach at Cape Shirreff, which was far more protected and safe than the one at Seal Island. “No more need for divers in dry suits to bring cargo ashore,” said Hewitt.

Two people stand in the foreground on a snowy beach, carrying wooden planks. The Seal Island camp buildings are in the background to the right, and a large group of penguins is in the background to the left and behind the buildings. At the very back are more snow-covered outcroppings.
The original Seal Island field camp. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Roger Hewitt

While teams of engineers and professionals typically build larger field stations in Antarctica with large construction equipment, the original Cape Shirreff camp was different. Six people assembled the camp equipped with only hand tools and an all-terrain vehicle for transporting materials between the beach and the site. The buildings were prefabricated in Punta Arenas, Chile, and then disassembled and brought to Antarctica on a research vessel.

Four of the six original builders were scientists. “We hired a two-person building team, a small crew of scientific types as the unskilled labor, a mountain of supplies, and rain and snow to build in,” said Bill Cobb, a former NOAA Corps Officer on the original build team. “I was in charge of logistics and planning, so as a guy in my mid-20s, I was given the task of planning the camp, including drawings to submit to the build team, camp layout, number of buildings, and all the supplies to stock the camp, like food, medical supplies, fuel, and communication equipment.”

The original Cape Shirreff field camp in mid-construction. Green groundcover is in the foreground, and a partly constructed building is in the middle. There are wooden boards and other construction supplies on either side of the new building. A large outcropping, sky, and ocean are in the background. Three people are working on the building and the supplies.
Building the original camp at Cape Shirreff. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Bill Cobb

The small crew of “scientific types” that built the original camp included Rennie Holt, the program director at the time. “I think one of the most unique facts about the camp is that it was built without an ounce of concrete. The buildings rest on treated wooden boxes which were packed with very small grain ash,” said Holt.

While unique, the lack of concrete and heavy reliance on wood construction materials led to extensive mold problems, which have compounded over time. In the camp’s first year, the eaves were left open over winter and the attic filled with snow. When the camp was opened the following summer and the heaters turned on, the snow melted into the walls. Since then, mold, bacteria, and fungus have been perpetual issues.