Antarctic researchers forced to relocate

A deep crack in the ice is forcing the British Antarctic station to move. The modular station has to be dismantled and each module towed 23 kilometres inland using tractors. Otherwise it could be cut off from the remaining ice shelf. Barbara Barkhausen reports from Sydney.

One of the Halley VI modules. (Image credit: Richard Burt, flickr/Creative Commons)

One of the Halley VI modules. (Image credit: Richard Burt, flickr/Creative Commons)

It looks a bit like a space station – and even sounds like one with a name like Halley VI Research Station. But Halley VI isn’t on Mars. It’s located in the Antarctica, where conditions are very similar to those in outer space: harsh and hostile to humanity. Another complication is that the research station wasn’t built on solid ground, but rather on the Brunt ice shelf in the Weddell Sea.

And therein lies the problem: a deep crack is forming in the ice only seven kilometres away from the station. The chasm had been dormant for 35 years, but it’s been growing since 2012. The researchers now fear that the station could be cut off from the remaining ice shelf if they don’t take action.

Antarctica requires flexible action

This is pretty dramatic news. And yet no one seems to be in much of a panic. The team is far more “excited by the challenge”, revealed Tim Stockings, director of operations at British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

“Antarctica can be a very hostile environment. Each summer season is very short – about 9 weeks,” Stockings said. “And because the ice and the weather are unpredictable we have to be flexible in our approach.”

The ice shelf is also constantly moving. Parts are constantly breaking off, separating from the ice shelf and floating out to sea as icebergs.

Move by tractor

The Halley VI research station conducts world-renowned research into globally important issues such as the impact of extreme space weather events, climate change and atmospheric phenomena. For example, we have the research station to thank for the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica in 1985.

The station will now be moved 23 kilometres inland because of the growing crack to a new site identified last summer. The entire relocation will be carried out in stages over the next two years in an effort to minimise the disruption to the research work.

Although this is the first time that the station will be moved since it was first installed in 2012, its re-locatable design will make the move easier: made up of eight individual modules, the station will be uncoupled and large tractors will tow each module to its new site further inland.

Bad news from Antarctica

The researchers didn’t say why the crack has grown in recent years and whether climate change is playing a role in this. But ice data from November shows that Antarctica – like the Arctic – has significantly less sea ice than in previous years.

The fact that bad news from Antarctica is increasingly more frequent is actually nothing new. Back in August, researchers warned that the Larsen C ice shelf could break apart. Its neighbouring ice shelves, Larsen A and B, already broke apart in 1995 and 2002, suggesting that this third, massive ice shelf could become thinner and more brittle.

The reason is all too familiar: temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have risen by 2.5 degrees Celsius over the past 50 years. Higher air temperatures are shrinking the ice shelf from above, while warmer ocean currents are weakening it from below.

Researchers in East Antarctica also discovered thousands of meltwater lakes during this year’s summer season. Some of these are sinking into the glaciers, a process that could weaken them. Although the scientists had already seen this phenomenon in the Antarctic Peninsula, they were dismayed to now see it in East Antarctica.

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