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Halley research station in antarctica
Halley research station in antarctica

Building the Halley VI Research Station in the Antarctic

5 Minute Read
DirtStories logo for DOZR
December 2, 2021

Do you ever think about the 5.5 million square-miles large ice mass at the bottom of our planet? Antarctica is about the size of the USA and Mexico combined and is covered by ice about 1 mile thick. In some places, the ice is more than three miles tall. This continent has zero towns and houses anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 people throughout the year in research settlements and scientific bases.  One of the most famous research stations is the Halley Research Station. 

Halley research station on a clear day

Why Is the Halley Research Station Important?

Of the 70 research stations in Antarctica, Halley is one of the most well-known ones. 

This British research station provides important information about ozone depletion, polar atmospheric chemistry, sea-level rising, climate change impacts and even insight into space weather. There have been 6 different versions of Halley since 1967.

Halley VI is the current station. The laboratory facilities inside this eight-pod structure are state-of-the-art and act as homes for brilliant scientists from around the world. 

Halley has always played a key role in environmental research both of the Antarctic and of the globe in general. It is one of the 30 stations around the world that are a part of the World Meteorological Organization’s Global Atmosphere Watch program. They participate in SPACESTORM - a project that monitored space weather events. The hole in the ozone layer discovered in 1985 was found by polar researchers at the Halley Station. 

This research station has played a vital role in scientific discovery. 

The History of Halley

The current Halley Research Station is the sixth station to be built. The first dates back to 1956. It was a simple timber hut and was replaced in 1967 by Halley II. The second iteration of the research station was made up of a series of huts with steel supports. This second version only lasted 6 years before being abandoned. The following series of Halley Stations were adapted from previous designs and were developed depending on what worked well - and didn’t - about them. 

Halley V opened up in 1989 and was fully completed by 1990. The problem with this fifth version was that the stilts on which the building was constructed were fixed to the ice shelf below. Into the 21st century, the edge of the ice shelf started to get too close to the structure and it became dangerous. 

This was the driving force behind the design of Halley VI.

Fully Relocatable Research Center

The Halley Research Station is the world's first relocatable research facility. Following the events that led to the closing of Halley V, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) organization opened up an international competition for architects to submit designs for a new research station. It was clear that the ice shelf moves below the station so they needed an innovative design to tackle this unique problem. 

Hugh Broughton Architects and AECOM won the contest with their modular construction design with movable pods. The design was created to withstand harsh winters, to help with scientific discovery, to manage all types of snow and ice, and to help keep the creeping edge of the ice shelf at bay. 

The hydraulic-powered legs at the bottom can be raised and lowered to adjust to rising snow levels. The feet are fitted onto skis so the modules can be pulled and transported to different locations.  Between 2016 - 2017 the station actually was relocated to a different part of the Brunt Ice Shelf.

relocation of halley research station
Map from BAS.

Different Parts of the Halley Research Station

There are eight main modules that make up the station. The large red bubble in the middle is a two-story hub for socializing and eating. The surrounding 7 blue sections are a mix of accommodations, offices and labs. There are generators and even an observation platform among the other facilities. 

Construction of Halley VI Antarctic Research Station

Products were brought in from all over the world to build the pods. The structure itself is steel overlayed with insulated GRP (glass fiber reinforced plastic) panels. Pre-construction happened in South Africa. This location was chosen because of its proximity to Antarctica. 

Halley VI station being towed by tractors
Image borrowed from ENR and provided by BAS.

The parts were constructed and loaded onto a cargo ship. Once they arrived in Antarctica, the pieces were put together and built over 3 different summer seasons. These summer seasons lasted 12 weeks each. So it took a total of 36 weeks to fully construct the station. Some of the parts weighed up to 6 tons. A mix of cranes, lifts, tractors and other large machines were used to move materials, piece them together, and then transport the final pieces to their destination. The entire project was named Engineering News Record's Global Project of the Year.

It cost $44,640,000 to build the station and it opened in February 2013.

Pieces of the Halley VI station being put together and constructed in Antarctica
Image borrowed from ENR and provided by BAS.

Halley Station: Alone In Winter

Since 2017, researchers have begun to only visit this station during the summer months. A large iceberg larger than 490 square miles (1270 square km) has started to crack off on the Brunt Ice Shelf. This ice shelf is where the Halley Station is. The presence of larger cracks during the dark winter months would make evacuation in the event of an emergency very difficult. During the winter months, the sun does not rise in Antarctica for 105 days. Temperatures can drop to -56˚C and winds blow in excess of 160 kph. Summer months are much safer for researchers. 

halley research station in winter

With all these factors in mind and despite the station being built for year-round use, researchers only inhabit the station during the summer. 

Animals and Wildlife

Because of the location of the station, there is a lot of unique wildlife and animals that can be found nearby. Emperor penguins  - one of the largest birds in the world and the biggest type of penguin - are often seen by the station. Different types of petrels including snow, giant, diving and storm petrels are seen. Seals, minke whales and orcas are also commonly seen by scientists and researchers at the station.

penguins by the halley vi research station in Antarctica
Image borrowed from the British Antarctic Survey.

The Halley VI Station Today

The research station has a lot of resources online to interact with and learn more about what they do there. You can take a 3D tour online and explore the station yourself and they have a webcam set up so you can take a peek at what’s happening there now.

This building is innovative and broke the boundaries of what research stations looked like. As climate research and monitoring become more and more important, the value of centers such as Halley VI will continue to rise. It’s comforting to know that it was built and designed to handle anything that comes at it. 

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