Antarctic station moved to escape breaking ice shelf

2017-01-17 16:09
The Halley VI research station is on the move. (BAS)

The Halley VI research station is on the move. (BAS)

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Cape Town - The British research station located on a floating ice shelf in Antarctica is being relocated and shut down over the winter because of fears it could float off if a crack in the ice causes an an iceberg to break off, the British Antarctic Survey said on Monday.

Sixteen people who were due to stay during the Antarctic winter between March and November will now be moved, the BAS said in a statement.

The station, which is located on the floating Brunt Ice Shelf in Coats Land on the Weddell Sea in Antarctica, will shut down between March and November 2017.  

“Changes to the ice, particularly the growth of a new crack, presents a complex glaciological picture that means that BAS scientists are unable to predict with certainty what will happen to the ice shelf during the forthcoming Antarctic winter,” the BAS said in the statement.

The station is currently in the final stages of being relocated 23 km from its present site to put it upstream of a previously dormant ice chasm that began to show signs of growth in 2012.

In October 2016, a second crack appeared around 17 km to the north of the research station.  

Halley VI is made up of eight modules built on stilts with skis and was built in 2012.The steelwork and external envelope of the building were constructed in Cape Town by a Consortium called Antarctic Marine and Climate Centre. 

The station has won several design awards.

Each module is being de-coupled from the others and towed across the ice by tractors. Between now and early March, science and technical teams will complete the relocation of the modules and prepare them for winter and ready for recommissioning next season. 

"There is no immediate risk to the people currently at the station, or to the station itself," BAS said.

"However, there is sufficient uncertainty about what could happen to the ice during the coming Antarctic winter for BAS to change its operational plans."

Glaciologists have monitored the growth of the crack in the ice using a network of GPS instruments that measure the deformation of the ice, together with European Space Agency satellite imagery, ground-penetrating radar, and on-site drone footage, which show that the recent changes to the Brunt Ice Shelf have not been seen before.  

According to BAS, they have run computer models and created bathymetric maps to determine whether or not a large iceberg will calve, and the impact that could have on the remaining ice shelf.

They conclude that they are unable to predict with certainty what will happen to the ice shelf during the forthcoming Antarctic winter and beyond.

“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,” director of Operations Captain Tim Stockings said.   

The BAS said it could evacuate staff quickly in the summer months but not in winter when it is dark for 24 hours, temperatures are low and the sea is frozen, therefore it was prudent to shut down the station and remove people before the Antarctic winter begins, the statement said.

Remote instruments will continue to capture and store data about the movement of the ice shelf.

The South African research station Sanae IV is built inland on a rocky outcrop called Vesleskarvet in Queen Maud Land.

Read more on:    antarctica  |  research  |  climate change

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