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17 January 2017

Ice Crack Prompts Closure of Halley VI Antarctic Station

 In the southern hemisphere, things are upside down. Winter comes in summer; wheelbarrows push people and so forth. However, this coming winter (Arctic winter), things are going to be unusually warm. Even without global warming, great tracts of ice seasonally fragment and float away. Still, nowadays, such phenomena tend to occur much more dramatically; and within the past week, scientists at Britain’s Halley VI research station have noticed that a gigantic crack in the ice only 17km away is getting bigger. It’s so startling, in fact, that it has prompted a full evacuation of the site for the winter. Indeed, the station itself is also being entirely moved to a new location 23km away: where it will be dragged on its giant skis by hefty vehicles.

The fear is that the tract of ice upon which the station currently sits may break off from the mainland and become an iceberg; or worse, that the crack could move right underneath the station. Either scenario could put staff in danger. According to the Guardian, after running tests, glaciologists have concluded that there is ‘sufficient uncertainty’ for concern. Consequently, as a precautionary measure, all of the 16 workers who were due to stay at the station over winter will now be leaving in March, following 72 others who are currently there. The station will remain empty until November.

Halley VI is located on the Brunt Ice Shelf, next to the Weddell Sea, making it easy to supply by ship. However, it also means that any big crack in the ice threatens the fragmentation of the coastline into icebergs.

Location of Halley VI in the…North-West? Maybe...  – img: Aecom
The news comes just days after fresh warnings were issued by NASA that a huge crack in the Larsen C Ice Shelf on the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula entails that a tract the size of Delaware is now “hanging by a thread.” It is expected to be one of the ten biggest icebergs ever recorded once it finally breaks free – which will most likely happen this year. It will follow the course of the Larsen A shelf, which disintegrated completely in 1995; and the Larsen B shelf, to which the same occurred in 2002.

The Larsen C Ice Shelf is also gradually breaking up – img: Daily Mail
On the other side of the Weddell Sea, the fault which is presently threatening Halley VI was first discovered on 31 October 2016 – and was consequently dubbed the ‘Halloween Crack’. If it did turn the area upon which Halley VI sits into a floating iceberg, it would be particularly dangerous in the colder winter months, as accessing the station for an evacuation would be much harder due to storms and ice.

Team leaders hope that their dual countermeasures of evacuation and relocation will be sufficient to prevent damage to the station or harm to staff. Still, the larger question of what will come of preservation efforts to the Antarctic itself is something they’re working on at the site – at least, when it’s able to stay operational. 

James Stannard

James has a Bachelor’s degree in History and wrote his dissertation on beef and protest. His heroes list ranges from Adele to Noam Chomsky: inspirations he’ll be invoking next year when he begins a Master’s degree in London.