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Engineering in Antarctica | Part one

walking towork Ben Image British Antarctic Survey Cropped

Halley VI Research Station operated by British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is on the move. 

Halley VI is a £26M modular structure jacked up on hydraulic legs, which keep it above accumulated snow. Giant retractable skis on the bottom of the legs allow the building to be relocated.

Located on the Brunt Ice Shelf, the building was downstream of a developing crack that could have eventually cut it off from the rest of the ice shelf. Because of this, it was decided that the research station should be moved.

Ramboll structural engineering director Ben Rowe was appointed as a technical advisor in 2016. He is among a 100 strong team but is the only structural engineer – a heady task that puts him charge of effectively engineering the road and route, as well as checking.

Rowe left 26 November to work during the southern hemisphere’s summer. He shares his first two weeks of diary entries with New Civil Engineer.


Halleyrelocationgraphic1736x552 BAS credit

Halleyrelocationgraphic1736x552 BAS credit

Growing cracks in the ice shelf threaten to cut adrift the Halley station.

Saturday, 26 November

Departing from Heathrow, the first leg of the journey was an 11 hour flight to Cape Town. We arrived on Saturday, 26 November in a very comfortable 24ºC.

Each stage of this journey is punctuated by the time to stow away our baggage (probably around 80 pieces between us). However it is clear that everyone works as a team forming the typical BAS chain to do this as quickly and efficiently as possible – bodes well for the project.

We had to extract insulated boots, insulated boiler suit, jacket, socks, hat and neck cover, gloves, sunglasses – enabling us during the flight to adjust our clothing suitable for the cold and windy conditions on the blue ice runway.


Arrival in Novo Image Ramboll

Arrival in Novo Image Ramboll

Source: Ramboll

Rowe touches down at Novo station, on the way to Halley.

Tuesday, 29 November

We got on one of the two buses for the Antarctic flight where there was a mixed group of Americans. Turned out that this group included 86 year old Buzz Aldrin, the second man to visit space after Neil Armstrong. The American group was on board as part of a BBC programme being made of his bucket list which included visits to the  North and South Poles.

The flight to Russian base Novo was approximately six hours long and after around four hours we were advised that we had crossed the Antarctic Circle. Shortly afterwards we were given further screen information to change into Antarctic gear. There was no room to change so half the people stood in the aisle or front area while seats were folded down and used to place our kit bags as we tried to get some seriously hot and bulky gear on. Try moving around a cramped aircraft with boots about 50% longer and wider than normal boots and with a padded boiler suit – I felt (and with the growing beard, looked) like Harry Potter’s Hagrid.

The surface is generally either ice or rocks varying from gravel size up to a small car

Ben Rowe

As we stepped off the plane we were hit by the cold freshness of the air, a gentle breeze and the blueness of the sky relative to the white ground spreading to the horizon in all directions.

Our group was last to be moved and having loaded our baggage onto a Skidoo pulled sledge, we walked the kilometre to the runway base containers. We entered the adjacent container which was a canteen and had a welcomed bowl of hot soup followed by spaghetti and beef stew.

We were then transported to Novo, some 15km away, on a trafficked route across the ice which the 4X4s coped with easily, given the extremely wide monster truck tyres . Our room is about 4m square with five beds and twice as many bags.

Ben in front of Halley VI Image Ramboll

Rowe in front of Halley VI Image Ramboll

Source: Ramboll

Rowe stops for a Halley selfie.

Wednesday, 30 November

A group of us decided to take ourselves off for a walk down to the frozen lake then up to a couple of the summits. The surface is generally either ice or rocks varying from gravel size up to a small car. The rocks’ visual appearance is quite varied from fairly typical coarse granites from white through to grey, pink with white or black bands. Also lumps of white quartz and rocks with sparkling metallic flecks.

We climbed a couple of the rock summits keeping the station in clear sight and met up with another part of our group at the second summit and then walked together back to our hut.

Logistics and weather forecast between Novo and Halley indicates that we will have another full day here and then leave on Friday 2 December. We still need to be available to leave in an hour where necessary.

Halley VI Research Station

Halley VI Research Station

Halley VI Research Station.

Thursday 1 December

This morning a few of us walked from Novo across the rocky landscape to the nearby Indian Station.

The guys were happy to show us their camp, work spaces and then take us into their main winter accommodation. There were a lot of friendly people who were interested in our work at Halley given it will be construction work and not their more familiar research.

On return to our cabin my face was stinging and red from the wind. However we joined some of the others sledging down the hill and then joined in the construction of an Igloo. Much harder than it seemed when Ray Mears made one with an Eskimo on TV. The wind had picked up and after a while it started to become bitterly cold and not helped through handling the ice blocks. It took a while but eventually we got it done and sat inside for photos and sheltering from the wind.

Friday 2 December

The flight to Halley was likely to stop at Neumayer German research station to refuel, before completing the remainder of the 1,803km.

I had porridge, but added some marshmallows and Quality Street choccys for a bit of interest. There is a table of high calorie food available throughout the day so everyone can manage their energy levels in this demanding environment.

We landed at Neumayer the German Research Station, which looks like a boat but with no hull. Instead of water it floats on 16 double storey height columns and a steel trussed frame at ground level covered with timber decking. Below the trusses, the 16 columns are supported by 3 splayed columns with a jacking ability so that, as snow accumulated, the station could be raised.


Neumayer Station

Neumayer Station

Neumayer Station.

Throughout our time there we were waiting for the okay from Halley in terms of a weather window. This eventually came at 19.30 and we were up and out of the building in a few minutes.

We traipsed across the ice and snow to the plane and were accompanied by a pair of Emperor penguins journeying across the ice. Icebergs were visible in the distance sticking way above the horizon and reflecting the low sun.

The plane again travelled smoothly down to Halley and could not have been much better, apart from the heat inside, which was getting unbearable. I was well and truly cooked by the time of our arrival.

A short ride got us to the Halley Research Station and our first glimpses of the iconic Halley VI modules. The station is surrounded with lots of other containers providing infrastructure and storage, like the other stations we had seen so far in Antarctica.

We dropped our bags off and were taken into the mess room for some hot food, followed by a short briefing.

Ben in front of Halley Image British Antarctic Survey

Ben in front of Halley Image British Antarctic Survey

Rowe in front of Halley

Saturday 3 December

The working day is organised around meals. The working day starts at 8am, there’s a mid‐ morning break for 30 minutes, an hour for lunch at 1pm, a mid‐afternoon 30 minute break and then dinner at 7pm. If the weather is really cold and the work very manual then these breaks are a welcome chance to warm up.

We jumped on a sledge pulled by a skidoo for a site orientation tour. We also had a communications talk for use of radios, laptops and communication back home in terms of limits of band width. We were introduced to a tag system which requires us to place our name tag on a hook that locates where we are on the site, and when not in a building but within the perimeter, which is added to a signing in/out book. Consequently we spend a fair amount of time visiting the tag board in the mess room to update our movements or advising station communications by radio. However, this is essential if a rescue had to be put into place due to an accident or poor weather conditions. Much of the planning is about working safely in the Antarctic environment.

I took the opportunity of a sunny afternoon to get some snaps of the site. The established workforce were also given the afternoon off and were whizzing around the site on the skidoos, sometimes towing skiers, while others did some cross country skiing and others jogged around the site perimeter on a prepared track.

halley extra2

halley extra2

The living quarters of Halley Station.

The bedrooms are pretty tight with four of us in bunkbeds sharing a room. Downstairs we have washing machines and dryers, a boot room, social space including a kitchen and telephone booth. There is a melt tank that provides all the water, which needs us to shovel in snow each day to maintain this system.

Monday 5 December

At 8am we had our Field Module 1 training session which included use of a Tilley lamp and stove, use of iridium phone and communication protocol, as well as tent and food provisions. It’s the kind of stuff I last did best part of 40 years ago at school.

I met up with the BAS engineering staff Oli and Chris to chat about the up and coming work. I outlined what I saw as the key aspects I needed to get on with given the programme for H1 and H2 modules.

Antarctica 2

Antarctica 2

The bridge’s pinned connection to E2 energy module.

Halley VI consists of eight modules: H refers to science modules, E to energy modules, A the main social module, C the command module and B the modules for bedroom accommodation.

A bridge spans between the two energy modules E1 and E2. It spans around 18m and  is around 2.5m wide.  At one end it is pinned to the E2 module supporting it vertically, horizontally and allows rotation, while at the other end to avoid locking in stresses from the relative module movement on the ice shelf, it has a sliding bearing in the direction of the span.

My work included, inspection of the bridge bearing; inspection of the sub‐floor of the modules, and inspection of the towing frames. We discussed potential areas for concern, which included for example the bridge spans and the impact these heavy units may have on leg settlement on the ice, discussing the influences of the melt tanks that operate currently at around a temperature of -40oC and the waste 30m diameter discharge onion. We also had a look at the hydraulic kit used to control the module legs, and therefore the level of the module and interface with the adjacent modules.

Antarctica 3

Antarctica 3

The sliding bearing to the E1 energy module, part of the bridge section.

 Tuesday 6 December

Although I have been regularly applying sun‐cream, the reflection of the sun off the ice can quickly cause some sun‐burn. The air here is dry although I have not, like a lot of people, developed a persistent dry cough. It is also easy to become dehydrated from the dryness and sun – not what I would have expected before coming to Antarctica.

After sorting out the kit – such as torches, exclusion barriers, access keys etcetera – to enable me to enter the sub floor zone safely, I crawled around the southern three modules, identifying some fairly minor issues to the space frame and the ski leg connection points.

As you move between the modules there are frequent static shocks due to lack of earthing. The static shock is enough to create an easily visible spark, certainly equivalent to that across a car’s spark plug. Those working here for a while get used to it and get in the habit of earthing themselves prior to handling electrical equipment.

Antarctica 1

Antarctica 1

The bridge module spanning between the two energy modules E1 and E2.

Wednesday 7 December

Today I found some working space with good in‐direct and overhead light in the A module TV room to start capturing my survey work.

The new Halley 6A site is predicted to extend by 2.2m/km per annum which may translate to around 45mm for the bridge length. If we are fortunate, any settlement of the E module legs may negate the extension on the site and the combined movement may be limited. It is an unknown status and therefore will require monitoring over the next year to ensure that the bridge maintains a safe bearing length, which has been discussed with the BAS staff and will need to investigate further.

Today I also inspected the members and connections on the A‐frames, towing members and ski spacers – leaving just the lifting frames to be done tomorrow.

Thursday 8 December

Today I started off on this bitterly cold morning with inspection of the lifting frame which was designed to provide temporary support to one end of a module during leg lifting operations. As I inspected the lifting frame I took off my gloves to take a photo record and within a couple of minutes my hands were seriously cold. I could only start to imagine how hard Antarctica must be for explorers like Ernest Shackleton enduring harsh conditions in the winter, without comfortable heated shelters, modern kit etcetera.

I quickly moved on to inspect the galvanised roof frames on modules H2, H1 and E2 and recorded observations on my camera as this was quicker and allowed me to get into the warm before writing up. At 11am I joined in a meeting to go through the plan to move the first module.

Preparing a module leg  Image Ramboll

Preparing a module leg Image Ramboll

Source: Ramboll

Preparing a module leg.

Friday 9 December

Started this morning with testing the H2 module leg hydraulics. There was some previous evidence of a minor leak, however the source could not be found – so prepared to deal with it if it becomes evident during the relocation.

With a couple of the BAS team we checked the tightness and completeness of all the critical leg connections for the modules, so if we manage to move the units quicker than expected, we were ahead of the game and not waiting on my checks. We then moved on to lifting all the timber panels on the bridge to inspect the brackets so that I can take a view on the likely connection adequacy.

Ben leg inspection Image British Antarctic Survey

Ben leg inspection Image British Antarctic Survey

Source: British Antarctic Survey

Rowe undertakes a leg inspection.

Saturday 10 December

This morning got the final leg connections checked with no issues. In the afternoon the team, including technical engineering staff and steelworkers, went through the process of lifting each leg to break the contact with the ice and installing the polythene sheets and drilling fluid to improve the break out friction and reduce the amount of work done to separate the H2 module from H1.

Once the legs were on slip membranes and the lifting frames out of the way, the steelworkers could install the towing frame members that maintain the leg spacing during the relocation.

We got the towing frame members between the legs in place but without the A-frame or shackles. We then installed a scaled load cell and winched against the weight and friction from a D5 and D6 dozer to do a controlled separation of H2 from H1 checking all the time that the remaining services remain working within safe limits. The load was increased until almost imperceptibly the module started to move a few millimetres, and then maintaining the load was enough to open up the gap to give confidence the module was free. We finished the day’s work with installation of the A frame, shackles and data load cell ready for the pull on Tuesday.

A frame for towing the modules Image Ramboll

A frame for towing the modules Image Ramboll

Source: Ramboll

The A frame, used for towing the modules.

The A-frame is quite hard to align with the dozer in reverse and needs a nudge to get the final position set – a bit less predictable than a trailer due to ice slip and bent skis etc. The vehicle manager also asked about the wind speed impact on the pull and we discussed the impact that 2t to 3t head on or laterally would have during the towing.


To be continued….

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