Five cities around the world are recognised as Antarctic gateways: Christchurch, New Zealand; Cape Town, South Africa; Hobart, Australia; Punta Arenas, Chile; and Ushuaia, Argentina. This Antarctic connection helps to shape the cultural, political and economic aspects of these cities.
Christchurch’s connection with Antarctica began with famous explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton who spent time in our city in the early 1900s before leaving for the continent. The echoes of their time spent here preparing for their voyages are imprinted throughout our city, Lyttelton and Akaroa. In the 1950s US Operation Deep Freeze operated from our city.
Current programmes based in Christchurch
Christchurch, as New Zealand’s Antarctic gateway city, hosts a number of international partners in addition to New Zealand’s own Antarctic government agency, Antarctica New Zealand.
Antarctica New Zealand manages the New Zealand Government’s interests in Antarctica and the Ross Sea. As well as providing logistics support to New Zealand’s Antarctic scientific programme, it also runs Scott Base, New Zealand’s only permanent base in Antarctica.
The United States has a long history dating back to the 1950s of using Christchurch as its jumping-off point to its Antarctic Stations. The National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent U.S. government agency, manages the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP). Through the USAP, NSF’s Office of Polar Programs (OPP) coordinates all U.S. scientific research on the continent and aboard ships in the Southern Ocean as well as related logistics support.
Through the Antarctic Support Contract, PAE (New Zealand) provides logistical support to the USAP in Christchurch. The New York Air National Guard 109th Airlift Wing operates LC-130 (ski-equipped) airplanes in the Antarctic Programme. The C-17 Globemaster, which flies regularly during the summer season from Christchurch International Airport to Antarctica, is operated by the U.S. Air Force while the U.S. Coast Guard operates an icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, to create an annual ship channel in the sea ice, escort supply ships, and to support science.
McMurdo Station, on Ross Island, the logistics hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program and the largest station on the continent, accommodates up to 1100 people. It is 3km from New Zealand's Scott Base. The USAP also operates the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and Palmer Station.
Since establishing the Mario Zucchelli Research Station in Terra Nova Bay in 1986, the Italian Antarctic programme has used Christchurch as their base to service the station. The base supports around 70 people and operates during the summer months, hosting a variety of scientific projects. Approximately 230 personnel pass through Christchurch each summer.
The ice-strengthened support vessel Italica was a regular visitor to Lyttelton over the years but has now been decommissioned. The Italian programme are looking at options to replace this vessel.
The Italian programme is currently completing a permanent runway at its Mario Zucchelli base. This is expected to change the nature of their operations through Christchurch, allowing flights throughout all the summer months; previously air movements were restricted to the beginning of the season.
The Korean Antarctic programme has maintained a presence in the city since it opened its Korea-New Zealand Antarctic Co-operation Office in 2014. The Korean Antarctic programme services the Jang Bogo Station, in Terra Nova Bay. Approximately 200 Korean scientists and support personnel pass through Christchurch each summer. KOPRI’s icebreaker and research vessel, Araon, usually visits Lyttelton on its way to and from the Antarctic three times over the summer months.
With the reopening of the Gondwana Research Station in Terra Nova Bay, the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), is increasing its operational relationship with Christchurch. There are currently between 10-20 scientists working in their base over the summer months, mainly in collaboration with the Italian Antarctic programme. However, the expectations are that the BGR programme will increase over the next few years with increases in personnel and collaborative partnerships.
NASA operates two major programmes through Christchurch. The largest programme, SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), receives logistical support from the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program and operates out of Christchurch from June to August conducting a range of missions to observe celestial objects. The second and smaller programme, ATom (Atmospheric Tomography Mission), visits Christchurch for a week each February and October as part of a global data-collection mission. Using a modified DC-8 passenger aircraft, ATom studies the impact of human-produced air pollution on greenhouse gases and on chemically reactive gases in the atmosphere.
- There are over 100 departures every season from Christchurch International Airport carrying 1,400 tonnes of cargo and the 2,600 scientists and staff involved in the National Antarctic Programmes.
- The US Antarctic Program has been flying out of Christchurch since 1955 – the first flight to the Ice from Christchurch was 20 December 1955.
- The journey south takes 5-8 hours depending on whether you are flying on a USA C-17 Globemaster or an American or New Zealand Hercules. Christchurch to McMurdo Sound is a 4,000 kms distance.
- Lyttelton Port Company provides services for scientific research and supply ships and icebreakers bound for or returning from Antarctica. The port has hosted the Araon (Korea), Nathaniel B. Palmer (USA), Italica (Italy) and USCGC Polar Star (USA).
- Christchurch is one of only five gateway cities in the world. The other gateway cities are Cape Town (South Africa), Hobart (Australia), Punta Arenas (Chile) and Ushuaia (Argentina).
Explore Christchurch’s historic connections to Antarctica located throughout the city.
Photo credits: Sea ice and penguin image supplied by Maddy Bellcroft © Antarctica New Zealand (2016). Ernest Shackleton's Cape Royds Hut by Anthony Powell for The Antarctic Office. C-17 arrival to Ross Seas from Christchurch by Anthony Powell for The Antarctic Office.