Antarctic research bases may not come to mind when someone uses the word "mobile," but the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has other ideas. When its Halley VI Research Station was threatened by a crack in the Brunt Ice Shelf, it decided to drag the whole thing 14 miles to safety, starting in December 2016. Thirteen weeks later, the facility has arrived at its new home and will be re-occupied when the Antarctic winter ends in November.
The £26 million (US$33 million) Halley VI base has been in operation in various forms since 1956, but in recent years it underwent a major redesign and rebuilding program. Since the interior of Antarctica is virtually one large ice cap, establishing bases poses some unusual problems. Left standing long enough, buildings can become buried as snow and ice accumulates, turning them into underground villages linked by snow tunnels. And that's if the region is a stable one. In others where the ice flows, such as the Brunt Ice Shelf, there's the threat of being carried along with the creeping ice or having it break open into fissures.
To prevent these setbacks, Halley VI was rebuilt as a series of modules like something from a futuristic moonbase. The brightly colored modules rest on telescopic legs ending in giant skis. This allows the linked modules to stand clear of the snow and ice even after a major storm and for the entire base to be packed up and moved periodically using specialized snow tractors.
What the BAS didn't count on was having to try out the concept so soon after the new base became operational in 2012. The Brunt Ice Shelf is a floating extension of freshwater ice originally formed by falling snow. Over the years, it flows down to the sea and portions of it calve off the main body to float north. The scientists monitoring the flow noticed that a giant fissure that had been dormant for over 30 years had become active recently and was moving in the general direction of Halley VI.
The discovery of a new and unpredictable crack raised new safety concerns, so playing better safe than sorry, the BAS decided to wind down operations at Halley VI and move it to a new location. During the Antarctic summer, a camp was set up to allow scientific work to continue while other equipment was returned to Britain temporarily. The base was then prepared for the move and the modules were hauled individually to the new site farther inland on the ice shelf and reassembled. The move was originally estimated to last until March or April, but has been completed several weeks early.
With winter approaching, Director of BAS Professor Dame Jane Francis took the decision to withdraw all scientific and support personnel because of the dangers involved should evacuation be necessary in the season of extreme cold and 24-hr darkness. Some of the summer staff will be returning to Britain aboard RSS Ernest Shackleton while others will be relocated to Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula and King Edward Point station on South Georgia island. Meanwhile, automatic instruments will continue to gather data at the base site.
The video below shows the move.
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