It was an emotional moment as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern entered the historic hut of early Antarctic explorer and “childhood hero” Sir Ernest Shackleton.
“I think when you’re a kid and you read stories about Shackleton, you’d never imagine that you’d have the opportunity to come. So I feel pretty lucky. It’s a cool place.”
Ardern is visiting Antarctica this week for the first time.
She said it was a critical time with the world in an increasingly “contested” space with potential implications for the Antarctic Treaty, which governs activity in the planet’s southernmost and least-populated continent.
Ardern’s visit comes amid the 65th anniversary of New Zealand’s Scott Base, which is undergoing a nearly $350 million redevelopment project - part of maintaining the country’s “strong position” on the continent.
Ardern was also there to see firsthand the work of New Zealand scientists conducting world-leading climate change research and cooperation with other countries including the United States.
But at a personal level, Ardern said she was drawn to the stories of the early Antarctica explorers including Shackleton.
As Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Arden said she was responsible for the Antarctic Heritage Trust and preserving and caring for artifacts from Antarctic explorers, including huts.
On Thursday, Ardern, accompanied by partner Clarke Gayford and a team with Antarctica NZ, visited Scott’s hut and Shackleton’s Nimrod hut at Cape Royds, built in 1908.
Ardern said there were important lessons to learn from Shackleton, particularly around leadership. During unsuccessful trips to reach the South Pole, Shackleton made tough decisions to turn back.
“His name became synonymous with leadership, because he saved his men.
“I think he knew success would come down to his ability to keep the team together and really hard times. So there’s a lot to take away on that.”
Ardern said she’d read stories about his expeditions as a teenager, and whether “conscious or not” these lessons had stuck with her.
“I don’t think I can quite compare government with the hardship and endurance of Antarctic exploration, but some days,” she joked.
Ardern said it was important to share these stories, with young people especially, including through virtual reality in schools.
“These are the first structures and places that humans built here in Antarctica, and they still stand; there are not many places where you could say that around the world.”
Ardern wrote in the hut book: “What endurance and fortitude. Thank you for preserving this place.”
Climate change and an increasingly ‘contested’ world
New Zealand is one of seven nations with territorial claims on Antarctica alongside Australia, France, Norway, the United Kingdom, Chile, and Argentina.
Other countries also maintain bases and facilities there, including the United States, and along with New Zealand are seeking to expand their presence. China is building its fifth research station.
The presence of countries on the continent is guided by the Antarctic Treaty, first signed in 1959 by 12 countries but which has since expanded.
Ardern said as the world became more “contested” there were implications for Antarctica and the treaty as well.
Ardern said visiting Scott Base highlighted the cooperation needed in such a remote part of the world, particularly between New Zealand and the United States. On Thursday the team explored the area surrounding Scott Base, including Mt Erebus, Cape Evans and the famous Dry Valleys.
Scott Base is in very close to McMurdo Station, where the United States is based.
Ardern said there was practical work shared, like assisting with refuelling when scientists are out in the field.
“We share resources just to make sure that everyone’s able to undertake their activity.
“It is a place that relies on cooperation and the foundation for that is, of course, the Antarctic Treaty.
“We are in a period where internationally, you see that parts of the world are becoming increasingly contested; Antarctica is part of that, too.
“So it’s incredibly important that New Zealand maintains its strong position over the role it plays here and over the Ross Dependency, but it’s also important that we maintain our principles of peace, environmental protection and research.”
Ardern said the greater risk to that was any challenges to principles of cooperation.
“In the Antarctic Treaty, nations were coming together for what ultimately was a shared view around the importance of the preservation of this region, regardless of what territorial claim exists.
“So in an environment where other nations may ramp up their activity, I think that’s where it’s so important that we maintain those principles of peace, security, science and research and environmental protections.”
Ardern said work in Antarctica was another example of New Zealand punching above its weight.
New Zealand had a much “closer connection” to Antarctica in many ways than countries, from connection to explorers and even proximity.
“I think that lends itself to New Zealand actually being very active here and being seen to be very active here.”
Ardern said she’d been having important conversations with scientists, particularly around climate change.
“They were remarking on the changes they’ve seen in the last five years. They themselves are commenting on the changes they’ve seen where they see the sea ice cracking or moving, what changes they’re seeing in the glaciers or icebergs.
“That just reinforces what we’re hearing. When you come down and see the vastness of this place, you can appreciate a degree or two [warming] will have a phenomenal impact on the world.”
Ardern will today visit scientists in the field and the Ross Island Wind Farm before flying back to New Zealand.
Ardern arrived on Wednesday after her Tuesday flight was cancelled due to poor weather.