Antarctic research base will be evacuated and relocated amid fears it could be swallowed by giant ice chasm

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 10:14am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 10:09pm

The British research base in Antarctica which first discovered the hole in the ozone layer is to evacuate and close for the winter amid concerns it could fall into a giant ice chasm.

Scientists will be removed from the Halley VI Research Station, run by the British Antarctic Survey and situated on an ice shelf, between March and November as a “precautionary measure” amid fears it could slide into an encroaching fissure.

The centre, based on the floating Brunt Ice Shelf, will be relocated inland to a safer area, 23km from its present site upstream of a previously dormant ice chasm that began to show signs of growth in 2012. Now experts say the growth of a new crack 16km north of the station means they are unable to predict what will happen to the ice during the Antarctic winter.

The organisation said while there was no immediate risk to its 88 staff working at the station the new crack “presents a complex glaciological picture” and that it would be extremely difficult to evacuate during the winter if the ice shelf fractured.

Tim Stockings, director of operations, said Halley VI, which was due to be occupied by 16 staff over the winter months, was designed specifically to move inland if required and that the relocation was going well. He said: “This challenging engineering project is scheduled to complete as planned by early March 2017. 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 added: “Our goal is to winterise the station and leave it ready for reoccupation as soon as possible after the Antarctic winter.”

The second crack to the north of the station was first spotted in October 2016. Since then glaciologists have monitored its growth using a network of GPS instruments that measure the deformation of the ice, together with European Space Agency satellite imagery and on-site drone footage.

While they have run computer models and created bathymetric maps to determine whether or not a large iceberg will calve, they say they are unable to predict with certainty what the impact could be on the ice shelf.

Drone footage of the crack in the Brunt Ice Shelf

The BAS said it is confident of mounting a fast uplift of personnel during summer months should the fracturing of the ice shelf occur. However access to the centre by ship or aircraft is extremely difficult during the winter months when it is dark 24 hours a day, with extremely low temperatures and the sea frozen.

The station is a platform for global Earth, atmospheric and space weather observation in a climate-sensitive zone. Crucial research carried out at the base includes studies such as the impact of extreme space weather events and climate change. Halley VI has also taken ozone measurements continually since 1956 when the team first discovered the Antarctic ozone-layer hole in 1985.

Temporary containerised facilities have been set up at the site to keep projects going during winter until the team is moved to the new location next summer.