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A line of blue modules sits on the ice.
Photo Credit: James Morris/Hugh Broughton Architects
The new British Halley VI Research Station looks a bit like a giant centipede. It was completed in 2012 after four years of construction. The company that designed the station is involved in a project to build a new atmospheric research lab in Greenland for the National Science Foundation.

Location, location ... relocation

Britain's Halley Station offers new design concepts for polar construction

Halley VI Research Station External Non-U.S. government site looks a bit like a giant centipede, its eight segments apparently in frozen stasis on the Brunt Ice Shelf, where British scientists have worked since the 1950s.

But this metal monster can come to life. Halley VI is the Antarctic’s first fully relocatable research station, with each of its modules outfitted with hydraulically controlled legs that sit on giant skis.

The design of the space-age-looking Antarctic base is the brainchild of Hugh Broughton Architects External Non-U.S. government site in association with U.S.-based AECOM External Non-U.S. government site. Architect Hugh Broughton, during a recent visit to the United States, talked about the design of Halley VI, as well as a new project for an atmospheric laboratory at the National Science Foundation’s External U.S. government site Summit Station External Non-U.S. government site in Greenland.

Person stands iin room ringed by windows.
Photo Credit: James Morris/Hugh Broughton Architects
The command module at Halley IV Research Station.
People play a game of pool.
Photo Credit: James Morris/Hugh Broughton Architects
Two people play pool in the station's social module, which also contains the dining facility and bar area.

“At Halley, we needed a new design that would not only jack it up above the rising snow level, but also could be relocated – a wholly new challenge for these research facilities,” Broughton explained.

The first Halley station was built by the U.K. in 1956 for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) External Non-U.S. government site of 1957-58, a global scientific campaign that focused heavily on the polar regions. That first building of timber lasted for about a dozen years, eventually becoming deeply buried in the ice shelf due to the high rates of precipitation.

“Everything that you leave on the snow surface will get buried,” Broughton noted.

The succeeding iterations of Halley Station also lost the battle with the elements, becoming buried or crushed by snowfall that averaged four to five feet per year. Halley III, for instance, suffered a particularly dramatic fate when it was later spotted in the 1980s at the face of the ice shelf, poised to be spewed into the Weddell Sea.

Halley V avoided that particular end. It had been completed in 1992 with a different concept. It was built above the surface on steel legs with an electric screw jack system to lift the building above the rising snow level.

But the lift system itself was complicated, employing eight people for nine weeks – and involving the entire station population for at least a couple of days every summer season. Snow buried the foundation each year, requiring workers to cut the legs, realign them and weld on new steel to extend them.

“It was a very labor intensive process,” Broughton said.

In the end, however, Halley V wasn’t defeated by snow, but by location. One year it found itself on the wrong side of an emerging crack that will eventually send a large chunk of the Brunt Ice Shelf out to sea. The ice shelf, a floating slab of ice fed by glaciers, moves about 2,000 feet per year. Inevitably, every structure stuck in the ice is headed out to sea.

The design of the Halley VI modules, mounted on hydraulic legs with huge skis, is the latest attempt to trump one of the toughest environments on Earth. In addition, the shape of the modules allows the wind to scour the snow from underneath, keeping the skis clear. It only takes four people about a week to lift the entire line of modules above the snow surface each year.

Each module is about 1,600 square feet, with two dedicated for dormitories, another two for power and water generation, along with a command center and laboratory. A much larger, 5,000-square-foot module is the social hub of the station, containing the kitchen, cafeteria and recreational spaces.

A small house is buried by snow.
Photo Credit: British Antarctic Survey
The first Halley research station buried by snow.
A building trapped in ice.
Photo Credit: British Antarctic Survey
The third Halley research station is about to make a dramatic exit from the ice shelf to the sea.
People walk toward a blue building on snow.
Photo Credit: James Morris/Hugh Broughton Architects
People walk toward the Halley VI Research Station.

After four years of construction, Halley IV was completed in 2012 and officially dedicated earlier this year.

“Learning from the failures of Halley V, we were very keen that all those spaces should be combined in one big module that could be the social heart of the station,” said Broughton, adding that a color psychologist was employed to suggest nuances that would “help with the winter blues.”

“At every turn we looked at how we could help people, particularly suffering sensory deprivation in a place like Halley,” he said.

One feature that didn’t make it into the final design was a hydroponic greenhouse. The new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station External U.S. government site, which is managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site, has a growth chamber that produces everything from spinach to tomatoes to strawberries – a small, humid oasis within the 65,000-square-foot structure.

“Everyone is aware of the South Pole installation. I keep arguing: Look how successful that is. Let’s get it into Halley. I’m sure at some stage it will be installed,” Broughton said.

The two stations, separated by about 900 miles of ice, also share similar science missions, as both facilities support upper atmospheric and astrophysical research. In fact, a U.S.-led project called BARREL (Balloon Array for RBSP Relativistic Electron Losses) External Non-U.S. government site out of Dartmouth College, which is partly funded by NSF, is being supported from Halley VI and South Africa’s SANAE IV Station External Non-U.S. government site.

Broughton’s design for Halley VI has won more than just accolades – the latest being the British Construction Industry International Award – as the U.K. architectural firm has been awarded additional work in the Antarctic, including the design of a Spanish research station, Juan Carlos on Livingston Island.

The latest venture with partner AECOM involves the design of a new research laboratory in Greenland at NSF’s Summit Station for atmospheric research.

“There are a lot of similarities to the Halley modules, but it’s developed specifically for the NSF program. There are also refinements. It’s like developing a car and then improving the model each time when you work on it,” Broughton said.

For example, the new Atmospheric Watch Observatory (AWO) will be clad in the same highly insulated, pre-glazed fiber reinforced plastic (FRP) panels as Halley VI. However, due to the sensitivity of the instruments, there can be no off-gassing from the construction materials.

Group of buildings sit on ice.
Photo Credit: Jim Pottinger (PolarTREC 2011)/Courtesy of ARCUS
Summit Station

Construction logistics of the AWO is still being worked out, according to Patrick Haggerty, program manager for NSF Arctic Research Support & Logistics External U.S. government site. Materials must somehow be transported 700 miles across the Greenland ice cap from Thule Air Base External U.S. government site.

“After that, funding will become our constraint,” Haggerty said via e-mail.

In addition to the AWO, there are plans to install a large radio telescope at Summit Station as part of a collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and ASIA-A External Non-U.S. government site, a Taiwanese astrophysics group.

“Structures will be needed to support their project,” Haggerty said. “We hope to upgrade our facilities in the Summit area over the next few years.”

Will another giant metal centipede or some other futuristic-looking station rise on the Greenland ice plateau? Only time will tell.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs