Science First Look

Ski-mounted research station deemed too dangerous for winter study

The British Antarctic Survey has decided to close the Halley VI Research Station as a large ice crack approaches the facility.

Halley VI Research Station is currently being relocated to a new site 14 miles upstream.
Courtesy of BAS | Caption

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has announced that it will close its Halley VI Research Station this upcoming March. The station rests over ocean water on the Brunt Ice Shelf; a large crack has come within four miles of the facility.

The BAS had already planned to relocate Halley VI, which consists of eight detachable modules mounted on skis, to a new site on the ice shelf that’s 23 kilometers closer to Antarctica’s coast, well removed from the crack. It still plans to complete the move by March. Normally, a crew of 16 would keep the station running through the Antarctic winter, which runs from March to November. But with ice shelf behavior difficult to predict, the BAS isn’t taking any chances.

“Bringing them home for winter is a prudent precaution given the changes that our glaciologists have seen in the ice shelf in recent months,” Captain Tim Stockings, BAS’s director of operations, said in a statement.

Halley VI is one of several research bases operating on or near Antarctica’s ice shelves. As The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this week, understanding how these shelves crack and move could be vital to understanding how Antarctica responds to climate change. But, for scientists, getting this data can be a risky enterprise.

“BAS is confident of mounting a fast uplift of personnel during summer months if a fracturing of the ice shelf occurred,” the agency wrote on its website. “However, access to Halley by ship or aircraft is extremely difficult during the winter months of 24-hour darkness, extremely low temperatures and the frozen sea.”

Antarctic winters, where temperatures stay below zero for months on end, have blocked rescue efforts in the past. In June 1999, Jerri Nielsen diagnosed herself with breast cancer while serving as a physician at the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. With conditions too dangerous for an airplane to land, Nielsen treated herself with chemotherapy drugs parachuted to the site. It was nearly four months until weather conditions improved and an evacuation could take place.

Any scientist willing to brave the Antarctic winter could face unforeseen medical problems. But BAS doesn’t want to see an entire crew adrift in the stormy Southern Ocean, with no possibility of rescue. It also canceled plans for a team to monitor the Larson C ice shelf when a 90-mile crack began cleaving the shelf from the mainland.

Halley VI’s modular, ski-mounted construction make it a valuable asset for studying these shifting shelves. But BAS has decided that it can’t guarantee scientists’ safety. From March to November, it says, “Remote instruments will continue to capture and store data about movement of the ice shelf.”

Meanwhile, the human crew will likely be eager to return to work.

Anthony Lister, an engineer who has worked at the site, told NBC that all the scientists and support staff at Halley VI “have that drive to see Antarctica. That might be because they’re thrill seekers, or nature lovers, or kind of romantic poets wanting to see some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet.”