Dream job: Matt Johnson. Photo: Antarctica New Zealand

A Queenstown man will play a pivotal part in the multimillion-dollar Scott Base upgrade in the Antarctic. Louise Scott talks to Matt Johnson, a few weeks into his role as chief engineer on the project.

In the science world, New Zealand is punching above its weight.

Matt Johnson, who was recentlyappointed as Antarctica New Zealand project director for the Scott Base upgrade, says it is constantly delivering. Projects on the ice are focused on marine biology, inland and coastal ecosystems and the big questions behind climate change.

They will include the influences on how ice sheets melt, how ecosystems in the Antarctic respond to the changing environment and how climate change there will influence the rest of the planet.

“For a small country, the science that New Zealand produces is pretty impressive,” Mr Johnson said.

The proposed $150 million upgrade of Scott Base, could facilitate the delivery of more science programmes.

New Zealand is one of the few countries to maintain a year-round presence. One of Mr Johnson’s first tasks is to secure treasury funding and put forward a business case.

It is not as easy as it sounds, and a crystal ball would come in handy, he said.The project spans 40 years. Difficulty arises in not knowing how science will progress within that time, particularly around solar and wind power.

“We could build something that is going to be fine for what we do right now. But how do we imagine the different areas of where research will go, how can we possibly try to anticipate that in the development work?

“We do know you are always going to need accommodation, water treatment, fresh water, heating. To do that in a way that minimises the environmental impact of us being there [is important].

“It is really about trying to achieve that balance. The goal is to maintain New Zealand’s presence in Antarctica and continue those science projects.”

During his first couple of weeks he has been “nailing down” what the upgrade project will look like. The full redevelopment programme could take 10 years to complete due to the short windows it has to do the work.

Mr Johnson, who is originally from England, describes it as a “dream job.”

While it may sound like a cliche, he has been blown away by the passion and commitment of those already involved, both at New Zealand’s Christchurch base and the Scott Base itself.

“They really believe in what is happening. If it wasn’t here then all those science teams would struggle to get the stuff done they need to do. [I am] constantly working with them to understand what their future needs are so that we are prepared.”

His impressive CV helped him snag the role.

He trained as an aerospace engineer in Manchester and his first job out of university was with BAE Systems working on military aircraft.

One of his key areas was engine modification. Any design change would require flight and product testing.

“Essentially, doing test drives, making sure everything was built as it was supposed to be. One of the first things they [pilots] used to do was take off for the first test flight and turn the aircraft upside down. Any bits that were loose in the cockpit would fall out into the top of the canopy. The pilot and navigator would pick all the bits up and tell us what had fallen off. Once a floor panel fell out and the pilot wasn’t particularly happy.”

Mr Johnson also worked on signalling for the London Underground and space and satellite communications in Europe.

Volunteer work with Raleigh International was followed by a three-week holiday to New Zealand. It was intended as a quick stop over but he bumped into Poppie, now his wife, and has lived in Queenstown since 2012, where he worked as executive officer for Wakatipu High School.

The new role does not mean hemust relocate and he will split his time between home and Christchurch.

He will visit Scott Base this month  and said he was excited to get on the ice.

Matt Johnson

Age: 42

From: Kendal, United Kingdom

Job title: Antarctica New Zealand project director for the Scott Base upgrade

Came to NZ: 2010 on holiday, married a New Zealander in 2012

Lives: Queenstown

Previous jobs: Aerospace engineer, signalling engineer for the London Underground, space and satellite communications in Europe, executive officer for Wakatipu High School.


Scott Base upgrade


• Ten-year project

• Science facility upgrades

• Focus on communication (internet connections)

• Low environmental footprint

• Year-round presence


Otago Daily Times