As our planet continues to warm at an increasingly alarming pace, more and more people living along coastlines — including the 13.1 million Americans residing in densely populated coastal areas — are facing the stark reality that one day, perhaps sooner than later, they’ll have to relocate to higher and dryer ground. Either that or invest in an amphibious house with legs.

And then there’s the select few folks forced to move due to massive ice cracks appearing in their own backyards.

Such is the case with the 88 brave — and appropriately bundled-up — souls currently posted at the Halley VI Research Station in East Antarctica who are packing up and decamping to warmer climes a bit earlier than expected due to an unpredictable, 30-mile-long ice crack that has grown about 10 miles north of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS)-operated scientific hub.

With the Antarctic winter (March through September) fast approaching, BAS officials are taking no chances with this new and “complex glaciological picture. In the coming weeks, all Halley VI-based staff will be forced to evacuate from the station, which is located on the Brunt Ice Shelf. While there is “sufficient uncertainly” that a huge portion of the ice shelf, namely the portion where Halley VI is situated, could actually break away — or “calve” off — from the floating ice sheet and become an iceberg, the BAS isn’t taking any chances and have ordered everyone out in what the BBC calls a "highly unusual move."

While 16 of the 88 researchers, most of them technical specialists rather than scientists, were scheduled to stay on through the winter, the station will be shuttered in its entirety through next November due largely to the fact that mandatory evacuations aren’t exactly easy to pull off during a season that, as The Guardian puts it, is defined by “24-hour darkness, extremely low temperatures and frozen sea.”

Ariel view of Halley VI An ariel view of Halley VI, a high-tech modular structure described as the world's first fully re-locatable research station. (Photo: British Antarctic Survey)

To be clear, the researchers stationed at Halley IV are not in any immanent danger of detaching and floating away on a massive iceberg. The complete and premature closing and relocation of the station, which itself is also not in any sort of immediate peril, is being carried out as a precautionary measure.

Whilst BAS is confident of mounting a fast uplift of personnel during summer months if a fracturing of the ice shelf occurred the same cannot be said for winter.
Between now and early March science and technical teams will complete the relocation of the station modules and prepare them for winter and ready for recommissioning next season. Remote instruments will continue to capture and store data about movement of the ice shelf. A staged removal of summer-only personnel whose work on the relocation is complete is expected to begin in early-February. All remaining personnel are scheduled to leave by early March.

“We want to do the right thing for our people. Bringing them home for winter is a prudent precaution given the changes that our glaciologists have seen in the ice shelf in recent months,” Tim Stocking, director of operations at Halley VI, adds in a press statement.

While relocating a large and vital research station containing state-of-the art laboratories and living accommodations to safer ground may seem like a formidable task, Halley VI, a modular structure consisting of eight interlinked pods each sporting ski-equipped hydraulic legs, was specifically built and designed to be relocated via tractor towing if need be. In fact, Halley VI, which has been situated on the Brunt Ice Shelf since 2012, is billed by BAS as the world’s first fully re-locatable research facility.

Designed by London-based Hugh Broughton Architects and constructed in South Africa, the curious, caterpillar-esque stilted structure is being towed a total of 14 miles upstream from the new crack as well as an smaller, once-dormant chasm first detected near the station in 2013. Following the discovery of the huge new "Halloween Crack" this past October, the BAS kicked the relocation scheme into high gear with operations due to wrap up in March just before winter sets in. Stocking notes that the “challenging engineering project” which involves de-coupling the modules and individually towing each one across the ice to the new locale where they are rejoined is going “very well.”

Halley VI relocation map Graphic: British Antarctic Survey

Most all of the previous non-moveable Halley Stations, all located on the Brunt Ice Shelf and dating back to 1956, have been buried by accumulated snow and subsequently abandoned. Thanks to its modular form and ski-fitted legs, Halley VI will not suffer the same fate as its less advance forebears.

Research carried out at Halley VI spans a “wide range of disciplines” but mostly focus on space weather, atmospheric science, sea level rise and glaciology. In 1985, measurements carried out by researchers at Halley IV lead to the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole.

Learn more about the unique, groundbreaking design of Halley VI and the massively important research conducted on it in this nifty, Sigur Ros-soundtracked video produced by the BAS.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Massive Antarctic ice crack shutters British research station
The caterpillar-esque Halley VI is currently on the move.