Professor Michael Danson, from the University’s Department of Biology & Biochemistry, joined a group of biologists (Robert Farrell and Yuki Chan), archaeologists (Russell Gibb and Dan McCurdy) and an architect (Adam Wild) from New Zealand on a two week trip to monitor the condition of the huts.
The group took samples of the fungi growing on the huts and nearby soil samples to look at the diversity of microbes that have been brought in, either originally on the wood, or carried by the wind, and adapted to the extreme cold environment. By studying the fungi that are rotting the wood of these historic huts, the scientists will be able to take appropriate measures to safeguard them from further degradation.
The team also used laser scanning technology to create an accurate 3D model of the three huts, so that in the future people will be able to take a virtual tour of them without leaving the comfort of their armchair.
Professor Danson, Director of the University’s Centre for Extremophile Research, said: “It was a real privilege to work on these historic huts where the great polar explorers based their expeditions. Everything in Scott’s hut is exactly as they left it on that fateful trip 100 years ago – tins of food, books, equipment – even tins of Fry’s cocoa from Bristol were left there.
“Conserving this history for future generations is incredibly important and we hope this project will go some way towards this. As well as being the coldest place on earth, the environment in the Antarctic is also surprisingly dry, but somehow microbes still manage to survive and thrive in this hostile environment.
“We want to understand how they have adapted to do this and how we can stop them degrading these historic artefacts any further.”
The team was flown out by the US Air Force from Christchurch in New Zealand to Scott’s Base and had to camp in tents outside the historic huts to leave everything undisturbed. The groups also flew by helicopter to Cape Crozier to take lichen samples, where they were caught in a storm and stranded for two days, braving temperatures of -30ºC (with wind-chill) before they could be flown back to their base by helicopter when the weather improved.
Professor Danson added: “I was glad to have had the latest survival gear to help me cope with the extreme temperatures, but it really struck me how heroic these polar explorers must have been to attempt their expedition 100 years ago with the most basic equipment and the knowledge that there was nobody to rescue them if they got into difficulties.”