Widening at a rate of 15 centimeters per day, a vast chasm in Antarctica’s ice is threatening one of the world’s most notable research stations — the Halley VI Research Station, which was until recently otherwise comfortably established on the floating Brunt Ice Shelf in East Antarctica’s Weddell Sea.
The chasm — a sizable crack in the ice — was dormant for about 35 years before it further began splitting open in 2012. It has only recently become a threat, as the chasm currently menaces toward Halley VI at a rate of about 1.7 metric kilometers — or approximately one mile — per year. Though the risk of the crack opening up beneath the station and enveloping it entirely is low, the chasm does place Halley VI in jeopardy of drifting off into the sea. This means the station must relocate.
However, as the name implies, this is not the first version of the Halley Research Station, which is best known for its discovery of the ozone hole in 1985; Halley VI was, in fact, explicitly designed to handle such risks. In addition to serving as an international platform for global, atmospheric and space weather observation via its location in a climate-sensitive area, Halley VI is the world’s foremost relocatable research facility. Each module sits atop ski-fitted, hydraulic legs that raise and lower to accommodate changes in snow height and decouple for easy haul to a new location using tractors.
This means the station will be able to study climate change and sea levels from a new location — about 23 kilometers, or roughly 14.29 miles, across the ice from its current spot — when the time to resettle arrives.
Tim Stockings, the Director of Operations at British Antarctic Survey (BAS) explains, “Halley was designed and engineered specifically to be relocated in response to changes in the ice.” He notes that the operational teams at BAS are excited by the challenge of the move, as they have developed highly detailed plans for the event, which will take place during Antarctica’s short summers — nine weeks at a time — over the course of three years.
Due to Antarctica’s harsh environment and unpredictable weather, flexibility is key; scientists’ aim for the move is to disrupt science programs as minimally as possible. For these reasons, as well as the brevity of Antarctic summers, the move will occur in stages among the eight modules that comprise the station. Meanwhile, the infrastructure that collects environmental data will stay in place
Stephanie Casella is a writer based just outside of New York City. She generally writes on politics, news, and culture, but occasionally delves into social issues, travel, science, food, and lifestyle.