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Analysis | Antarctic engineers

Halley VI  British Antarctic Survey

An Antarctic summer hits -20°C. In winter it’s closer to -60°C. New Civil Engineer takes a look at what Britain builds below zero.

This week (17 August), New Civil Engineer reported on Ramboll’s contract for Antarctic engineering work for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

Antarctica is the “empty” continent. In summer, the population reaches around 4,400 people as researchers and technicians from across the world arrive for the long days and warmer temperatures. Their numbers fall to 1,100 in winter – and it’s a long one, with only 20M penguins for company.

The UK has launched a 10-year upgrade programme to modernise facilities in the polar regions.

Scientists and researchers will split £200M between Antarctic and Arctic infrastructure and research programmes.

There is also a new Antarctic research vessel – set for launch in 2019 – the RSS David Attenborough, which is worth £200M.

Source: Steve Roberts and Al Doherty

Amundsen Sea Embayment Exposure Dating (ANiSEED) studies ice in West Antarctica.

The UK Government’s commitment is important because changes to the polar regions tell us a great deal about how the Earth’s climate is changing. 

In June this year, COlevels at the Halley VI Research Station hit 400 parts per million for the first time on record. 

“The remoteness of the Antarctic continent means it is one of the last places on Earth to see the effects of human activities, but the news that even here the milestone of carbon dioxide levels reaching 400 parts per million has been reached shows that no part of the planet is spared from the impacts of human activity,” says David Vaughan, director of science at BAS.

But it’s not all environmental gloom from the South Pole.

This July, US researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported that the hole in the ozone layer – first discovered by BAS scientists in the 1980s – had reduced in size by more than 4M.km2.

Halley VI

Halley VI [Source: BAS]

BAS research station Halley VI, in Antarctica

BAS currently operates four research stations in Antarctica – Halley VI is perhaps the most notable. Aecom worked with BAS, Hugh Broughton Architects and contractor Galliford Try to construct the station.

The modular station has ski foundations that allow it to hold a better footing on the ice and avoid approaching ice cracks. Hydraulic legs allow the station to mechanically move clear from the snow, which rises by 1m every year. The base itself is a steel structure clad with insulated glass reinforced plastic panels. 

According to Hugh Broughton Architects, the station was designed to be placed perpendicular to the prevailing wind so that snow drifts form on the downwind side. The idea behind this placement is to create a snow free windward side with a solid ice surface over which the station can be moved.

The station is now set for move – with help from Ramboll – as a chasm in the ice shelf that is home to Halley VI threatens to swallow the base. 

The challenging conditions faced by the team are a stark reminder that despite being the fifth largest continent on Earth – twice as large as Australia – Antarctica remains a largely unengineered place. Possibly the most unengineered on Earth.

And what humans place there is soon reduced to white nothingness without constant attention. 

When we think about Antarctica we start to think about our limits. Those that we must respect, and those that must be broken.

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