Halley VI station moved to safer location but staff to be brought home during southern winter as ‘prudent precaution’
A British research station on an ice shelf in Antarctica is being shut down over the southern hemisphere winter because of fears it could float off on an iceberg.
The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) said in a statement on Monday that it had decided not to winter at the Halley VI research station on the Brunt ice shelf due to concerns for its staff’s safety amid changes to the ice.
Preparations to relocate the station further inland due to the threat posed by a growing crack in the ice were under way last month, but it was to remain operational.
The station will now be shut down between March and November 2017 and the 16 people who were due to stay there over the winter will move out.
Parts of the ice shelf periodically cleave off from the floating ice sheet, creating icebergs. Glaciologists have run computer models and created bathymetric maps to try to determine the likelihood and impact of this happening, but there was “sufficient uncertainty” for concern.
The BAS said there was no immediate risk to the people currently at the station or to the station itself, and that staff were being relocated only “as a precautionary measure”.
There are 88 people on the station, most of whom are only there for the summer and are due to leave. Staff could be evacuated quickly if the ice were to fracture in the summer months, but not during winter with its 24-hour darkness, extremely low temperatures and frozen sea.
Capt Tim Stockings, the director of operations, said in a statement the mission aimed to leave the station ready for reoccupation as soon as possible after the Antarctic winter. “We want to do the right thing for our people. Bringing them home for winter is a prudent precaution given the changes that our glaciologists have seen in the ice shelf in recent months,” he said.
The Halley VI station, made up of eight modules built on stilts with giant skis, has been situated on the Brunt ice shelf since 2012 and was designed with a potential move in mind.
The relocation is in its final stages, with seven of the eight modules dragged 14 miles (23km) inland and off the shelf away from two cracks in the ice. One had lain dormant for at least 35 years before showing signs of growth in 2012, while the other appeared as recently as October 2016. Glaciologists monitoring their growth have found that the recent changes to the Brunt ice shelf have not been seen before.
Stockings said the move had been “going very well” and should be completed on schedule by early March.
Ozone measurements at Halley led to discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole in 1985 and the station is important for monitoring climate change.
The BAS said every effort was being made to continue scientific experiments under way there and that options to temporarily redeploy research and technical support teams to other parts of the organisation were being explored.