British researchers to abandon Antarctic station again because cracks in ice shelf are putting their lives at risk


British researchers will be forced to abandon a station in Antarctica for the second winter in a row as the accelerated growth of two cracks in an ice shelf their base sits on are putting their lives in danger.

The Halley VI research station will shut down for the 2018 Antarctic winter — between the months of March and November — after already being inactive during the same period this year. The 14-person crew at the station, responsible for primarily studying the climate, will be rebadigned during this time because of the British Antarctic Survey’s concerns that a proper rescue could not be mounted if a portion of the 150 m thick Brunt ice shelf begins to break off. 

“What we are witnessing is the power and unpredictability of nature,” British Antarctic Survey director Jane Francis said in a statement. “Because access to the station by ship or aircraft is extremely difficult during the winter months of 24-hour darkness, extremely low temperatures and the frozen sea, we will once again take the precaution of shutting down the station before the 2018 Antarctic winter begins.”

Both the Halloween crack and chasms are growing, forcing researchers to abandon the base.

British Antarctic Survey

The station is being threatened by enlarging cracks north and south of it. In the south, an ice chasm dormant for 35 years began to grow once more in 2012 — the year the Halley VI station was set up. In the past seven months, the British Antarctic Survey said the chasm’s growth has accelerated, bringing it closer to the station.

To the north, a fracture in the ice shelf dubbed the “Halloween crack” appeared in October 2016. During the Antarctic winter, the crack expanded to 50 km in length. According to the Guardian, the Halloween crack is growing eastwards and threatening to cut off a crucial resupply route.

David Vaughan, director of science at the British Antarctic Survey, told the Guardian that the growth of the cracks is more likely due to the standard calving — portions of the ice shelves splintering — than climate change.

“We don’t believe that this is related to climate change – certainly not atmospheric change,” he said. “We don’t truly know enough about the oceans to exclude it, but it is not a strong line of reasoning at the moment.”

The Halloween crack is growing and forcing researchers to abandon their base.

British Antarctic Survey

Before the station was shut down for the 2017 Antarctic winter, a team towed the pods that make up the base 23 km east to avoid the growing ice chasm. However, the growth of the southern crack exceeded expectations and the station will still need to shut down.

Had the station remained in its original location, it would’ve been lost. Vaughan said he expects the ice chasm to continue growing from the south until an entire section of the Brunt ice shelf breaks off and becomes an iceberg.

Despite being unable to work during the winter, Vaughan said the station won’t be moved again.

“We are not going to move the station any further – we believe that the station is actually in the optimal place on the ice shelf now,” Vaughan said.

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