Research on the Rocks

A look at Antarctica’s newest and greenest research station.

By Sara Blask

It might sound like a yuppy's dream loft: a living space with a bar, gym, billiards and ping pong tables, not to mention a TV lounge and a decked-out kitchen. What’s more, a glass atrium simulating natural light will help ward off depression during darker months, and a hydroponic veggie garden will provide fresh food.

But you won't find this space in New York City or even North America. Welcome to the central module of Halley VI, a $74 million, mobile research station set to open in 2009 near Antarctica’s Caird Coast. Funded by the British Antarctic Survey, it will consist of eight prefabricated and linkable modules with adjustable skis on the bottom of each unit. It will house 52 scientists, including atmospheric physicists and meteorologists. The modules are being built in South Africa and will be shipped to Antarctica this December, but it will take two additional seasons to transition from Halley V to the next-generation station.

Halley VI, like its five predecessors, will sit on the Brunt Ice Shelf, a 200-meter-thick floating ice sheet inaccessible by air and sea for nine months of the year. British scientists have called the southern outpost home since 1956, but in the coming years they expect the area to become less hospitable. At regular intervals the shelf breaks off into icebergs and scientists predict a major calving event sometime after 2010 could leave the existing research station, Halley V, stranded. In light of this eventuality, the skis unique to Halley VI will allow researchers to tow it to a stable location.

“The idea is that periodically, perhaps once every ten years, we’ll move [the base] upstream on the ice shelf,” says Mike Pinnock, head of the British Antarctic Survey’s Physical Sciences Division. This mobility ensures that the station can be relocated whenever there’s a threat of a calving event, and that scientists will be able to continue their research uninterrupted, instead of pausing while a new base is built.

Halley VI is also designed to have a smaller environmental footprint than its ancestors. Because increased manpower means increased energy consumption, one of the first steps taken by the design team was to reduce the number of people required for building maintenance, which will cut the total number of inhabitants during peak season from 78 to 52, says Peter Ayres, Halley VI design director. In addition, food waste will be incinerated rather than buried, and sewage will be treated so that its byproduct—water—is treated to European bathing standards. Low-flow showers, washing machines, and toilets will reduce water consumption by up to 50 percent.

“Water is the one thing that Antarctica isn’t short of, but energy used to boil that water is something to consider,” Ayres says.

The research station has a plethora of environmentally friendly elements, but running it will require fossil fuels, which Ayres calls “a necessary evil.” However, the modified diesel generators that power the base will be equipped with hookups for wind turbines and solar panels that could be integrated in the future.

“We can’t have zero environmental impact,” says Ayres. “But we like to say that Halley VI is a visitor to Antarctica, not a resident. It’s designed to rest lightly, move where it’s needed, and be towed away, leaving nothing behind except some treated wastewater.” 

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