Break in Ice Forces the Cancellation of Winter Research at Antarctic Station

The British Antarctic Survey decided against wintering scientists in their Halley VI Station after a large, unpredictable crack developed nearby.

Published Feb 9, 2017

 (PBS Newshour)
Image Via PBS Newshour

On 16 January 2017, the British Antarctic Survey announced that they would be shutting down their Halley VI research station between March and November 2017, due to the presence of a growing and unpredictable crack expanding through the ice shelf on which the station rests:

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has decided not to winter at Halley VI Research Station for safety reasons. The station, which is located on the floating Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica, will shut down between March and November 2017.  Changes to the ice, particularly the growth of a new crack, presents a complex glaciological picture that means that BAS scientists are unable to predict with certainty what will happen to the ice shelf during the forthcoming Antarctic winter. As a precautionary measure BAS will remove its people before the Antarctic winter begins.

Halley VI is a “relocatable” station, which means that it can be transported (slowly) on sled-like platforms — a task that is required, because the station, by design, rests on a moving block of sea ice:

Built on a floating ice shelf in the Weddell Sea, Halley VI is the world’s first re-locatable research facility. This award-winning and innovative research station provides scientists with state-of-the-art laboratories and living accommodation, enabling them to study pressing global problems from climate change and sea-level rise to space weather and the ozone hole – first discovered at Halley in 1985.

This new crack first developed in October 2016 at a time when a crew was already in the process of moving the station 15 miles to the east to get away from a different crack — once dormant — that had begun to spread in 2012.  (This crack differs from the larger break on the Larsen C Ice Shelf that has gained headlines for expanding over 17 miles in the past two months.)

Although the story gained traction with an 8 February 2017 PBS Newshour headline suggesting an evacuation, David Vaughan, the Director of Science for the BAS, made it clear in that story that this was a precautionary move and not the emergency removal of staff in peril:

In the summer, we have the opportunity to remove people relatively rapidly from the station, but, during the winter, when it is cold and dark and stormy for many months at a time, that’s the point at which we would find it quite hard to get people out.

In that same interview, he said the reason for this move was that they could not be certain how the two different cracks and the shelf would behave, describing their potential interactions as “unpredictable.” Though there have been other notable breaks in the Antarctic shelf potentially tied to global warming, Vaughan said that this particular event was likely a result of a natural cycle.

As of 2 February 2017, the move was complete, and the BAC said that “staged withdrawal” of staff was taking place:

Many of the summer-only staff who were employed to relocate the station are returning home on board RRS Ernest Shackleton.  Of the 16 people who were expecting to winter at Halley VI three will work at Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula instead, one person will work at King Edward Point station on South Georgia and others will return to Cambridge to work on other projects over the UK summer.  Many of the winter team will then return to Halley VI next season.

This will be the first time scientific operations have been cancelled at the Halley site, which is most well-known for housing the research that lead to the detection of the Antarctic Ozone Hole in 1985.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.

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