Science at Halley Research Station

Katie Joy | 18 Dec 2019

We have written several posts about Halley research station, our home-from-home research base for the past two Antarctic field seasons — but what other science is being supported from Halley?

The station, located on the Brunt Ice Shelf at Lat. 75°34’5″S, Long. 25°30’30″W, has been occupied as a British base since 1957. The current version is called Halley VI and, with its futuristic space-station looking red and blue modules, is currently home to about 35 people in the summer who are supporting the station infrastructure and are assisting in the long-term science experiments running out of the station. Currently, because of potential issues surrounding the possible breakup of the Brunt Ice Shelf (see news stories here and here) the station is being operated in summer crew mode, and in the winter (from February onwards) all the staff leave Antarctica and return to the UK.

Current Science projects

Ozone hole monitoring: Measurements made at Halley that led to the discovery of a hole in the ozone layer in the 1980’s, leading to banning of CFC chemicals and international concern about the effects of ozone loss in the stratosphere (middle atmosphere). The equipment that made the discovery is still in use at Halley VI: called a Dobson spectrophotometer, is a device for measuring the amount of different wavelengths of ultraviolet (UV) radiation that reaches the ground (read more here) and used to determine ozone column density above our heads. Antarctica is a great place to make these measurements as there are few atmospheric pollutants which might absorb the specific wavelengths of light being measured. The station has a manual version of the spectrometer (see photo), a separate ozone monitoring station, and also recently has installed a computerised Dobson spectrometer that can run in automated mode through the Antarctic sunset and sunrise around winter when the base is without a crew. This automation has been made possible by the introduction of a micro-turbine energy generator, which ensures that this 60 year experiment can continue to run and collect data to ensure scientists with a continuous record of Antarctic ozone layer variation.

BAS’s James Byrne taking a Dobson solar measurement in the Halley science lab. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Katie attempting to take a Dobson measurement (and thus contributing to a 60 year science experiment!), under careful instruction from James. (NB I have my “doing-science-must-focus-so-I-don’t-screw-it-up” face on). [Credit: James Byrne]

Climate change monitoring, atmospheric and daily weather observations: Understanding how the climate is changing through time is a key science priority for the British Antarctic Survey. Every day the researchers here launch a weather balloon to measure the temperature of the atmospheric column, a record going back over 30 years which suggests that the atmosphere has been warming year on year up to 8 km in height above the ice surface. Scientists also measure the chemistry (trace gases and aerosol) of the Antarctic air using a special clean air sector laboratory (the lab is located in a position where aircraft cannot fly above it and no one can drive a mechanical vehicle like a skidoo in its vicinity — as such people Nordic ski or hike out to visit the site). Other atmospheric monitoring experiments to understand global high altitude wind (gravity wave) propagation, lightning strikes, and high altitude (87 km) temperature measurements all complete a suite of instruments that are setup or are being set up to run automated throughout the Antarctic summer and winter seasons to understand Earth’s atmosphere. In addition to these high altitude and long term climate records, daily weather (temperature, dewpoint, wind speed, cloud coverage, cloud type) is recorded and is also used for helping out logistical planning for aircraft movement around the area.

Space weather observations: Space weather is the term used when energetic particles ejected from the Sun interact with the Earth’s protective magnetic field (known as its magnetosphere). Often this interaction manifests itself as aurora at the northern and southern poles (also known as the southern and northern lights). An all-sky optical camera and, in the future, a new camera system will be able to monitor changes in local aurora conditions at Halley to determine the effects of ionisation in the upper atmosphere. This ionisation can also alter Earth’s magnetic field itself, and a series of magnetometers run at Halley to monitor these changes. Together this knowledge helps to understand the potential electromagnetic risks to orbiting satellites and on Earth electrical-based infrastructure, as well as helping unravel the fundamental science of how the Earth interacts with its space environment.

Brunt Ice Shelf movement: The ice under our feet at Halley is about 150 m thick. The station is slowly drifting towards the Weddell sea as the Ice Shelf propagates off the continent heading in a north-westerly direction. The Brunt Ice Shelf is continually in a cycle of growth and then break-up when large parts of the Ice Shelf edge carve and break off into the sea. At the moment there are two very large cracks opening up to the north (the Hallowe’en crack) and to the west (Chasm 1 crack) of the station. The development of these cracks and the movement of the Brunt Ice Shelf is being carefully monitored using high spatial resolution GPS stations and radar stations that are distributed around several sites on the Brunt. As and when, the Chasm 1 crack finally breaks the Ice Shelf in two, BAS will be a unique position to monitor the carving event and watch how the remaining Brunt Ice Shelf under Halley station responds to the change.

Brunt Ice Shelf showing locations of Halley VI base, Hallowe’en crack and Chasm I crack. [Credit: BAS]

I like to move it, move it…

Katie Joy | 15 Dec 2019

The last few days have been quite busy for everyone in the team with some key field movements happening.

On Friday (13th) Romain and fieldguide Taff were input to the last campsite we visited earlier in January 2019, and where our depot site was located. More from them in the next blog post… Their mission was to dig up the depot, get all the skidoos working, and start sending loads over to Geoff, Wouter and fieldguide Rob at the new camp site.

Geoff, Wouter and Rob meanwhile were sitting pretty at the Outer Recovery site waiting for the first loads of inputs to be delivered. Yesterday, two skidoos, sledges and rescue kits were delivered in by Twin Otter pilots Mark and Dutch, along with some much welcome snacks and baby wipes. They have journeyed over to collect the science kit that was dropped off, and have scouted a new potential camp site close to the icefields where we want to work. I think, after a week of sitting around building igloos, they are excited to start working.

The plan for the next few days (weather permitting) is to ensure that there is fuel at the local depot site, then get the rest of the kit over to Geoff and Wouter, and transport Taff and Romain over to Geoff. In the meantime I am sitting at Halley drinking a lot of tea and generally plumping up on all the amazing food watching remotely news on the guys work hard in the field. Hopefully I will fly out on the last load of science equipment to join everyone when they have the camp suitably set up for my arrival 😉

Halley modules looming out of the mist. [Credit: Katie Joy]

The weather has been pretty foggy here at Halley, giving the modules an eerie look like a spacestation on an alien world. The staff on site have been working hard to raise the buildings up out of the accumulated snow which was deposited in the Antarctic winter. The Brunt icesheet normally gets 1 to 2 metres of snow in the winder season, quickly burying the structures like the Drewry accommodation building photographed below. Over the coming weeks the modules themselves will be raised up so that they are rising over the surrounding area rather than looking like they are sitting on ground level.

Drewry building, currently sitting lower than the surrounding snow level which has accumulated over winter. The plan for tomorrow is to raise the structure up onto the surrounding surface. Image: KJoy.

Update from Halley

Katie Joy | 12 Dec 2019

I arrived at Halley Research Station two days ago (10th December), after a long day of flying from Rothera (~8 hours of flying with one stop on route at Sky Blu — thanks pilot Ian and co-pilot Tim). We journeyed out first over the Antarctic peninsula, with small mountain ranges popping out of the continental ice shelf, and then out over the Ronne Ice Shelf, which is a large flat expansive area of freshwater ice pouring off the continent into the Weddell sea. Lots and lots of flat white out of the window for several hours. Where the ice shelf finally meets the sea ice there is open ocean with many large freshwater icebergs bobbing around between still frozen sea ice floes. Some of the freshwater icebergs that have been liberated from the Ronne have amazing shapes — see this perfectly rectangular example in the photo. The ice floes, which melt and refreeze annually, are fractured and complex, looking as you fly over them like the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, with its chaotic terrains (when you are a planetary scientist you start spotting terrestrial analogues whenever you look out of the plane window). It was a beautiful flight.

Rectangular berg. [Credit: Katie Joy]

I joined up with Romain at Halley who has been based here since last Friday (6th December). We have spent the last couple of days working with fieldguide Taff and the pilots to figure out how to order the Twin Otter plane loads to send out into the field. There are a lot of logistics needed to get us and the metal detection kit to join up with Geoff and Wouter, and also ensure that there is enough aviation fuel at a depot site so that the planes can stay fueled up and flying (with contingency in case the weather changes). Its a bit like a space mission planning exercise — bartering which of the field equipment and people are the most important to get out first in case we have a major weather delay changing the schedule further on. When you only have so much weight you can put onto an aircraft with a round trip of x number of km… what do you take in which order?! Whilst we wait to get out and about we have also been helping out around base, and enjoying some of the local evening entertainment including playing pool and table tennis, and last night I gave a science talk to share whats going on with the project with all the people working on station who have been supporting the project. We are really grateful to the team at Halley who have been hosting us in this amazing research station.

Ice floes, a terrestrial analogue for Europa’s chaotic terrains? [Credit: Katie Joy]

Halley views

9 Dec 2019
Digging out fuel en route to Halley. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
Geoff taking his co-piloting duties seriously. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
Flying over a colony of emperor penguins en route to Halley. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
Halley VI research station. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
The Dobson spectrophotometer at Halley measuring ozone. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Half the team is at Halley

Romain Tartese | 6 Dec 2019

After a bit more than a week there, Geoff and I left Rothera yesterday after lunch to start making our journey down to the meteorite search area. We boarded the AZ Twin Otter aircraft with field guide Rob and mechanic Tom (who is going to Halley where he’ll spend the next year or so!), and pilots Dutch and Mark (always better with pilots!). Between Rothera and Halley, we made several stops on the way, notably needed to refuel the Twin Otter.

The views leaving Rothera and Adelaide Island behind were fantastic. A couple of hours after leaving Rothera we first stopped at Fossil Bluff for a quick refill. Landing at Fossil Bluff was truly fantastic as you follow spectacular cliffs all the way down – see photo below.

Spectacular layered cliffs on the way down to Fossil Bluff [Credit: R. Tartese].

We then stopped at Sky Blu, where the Twin Otter lands on a blue ice runway. It was actually my first steps on the Antarctic continent, since both Rothera and Fossil Bluff are on islands off the coast.

Happy chaps having just landed at Sky Blu [Credit: G. Evatt].

After landing, we were met by three BAS colleagues that are stationed at Sky Blu for a few days or weeks. Readers who followed the blog last season will probably remember that Sky Blu is where Geoff spent some time last summer trying to break the metal detector assembly we will be towing on the ice, and perfecting his ice coring skills. We had a great dinner (thanks guys!) and a good night of sleep in our cosy (and very orange) pyramid tent.

Midnight sun at Sky Blu – the Twin Otter can be seen on the far left [Credit: R. Tartese].

After breakfast this morning, the weather forecast over the Ronne Ice Shelf and onto Halley was promising, so we set off at around 0830 to finish our journey to Halley station. And we were once again greeted by fantastic views all the way. After just under 3 hours, we stopped at the Three Ronne Depot (TRD) on the edge of the Ronne Ice Shelf to top up the Twin tanks with about 800 litres of fuel! It involved a very limited amount of digging to access the barrels – and as suggested by the photo below it was very balmy!

Refuelling at the Three Ronne Depot [Credit: R. Tartese].

The final leg of our journey took us from the Ronne Ice Shelf to Halley VI station that sits on the Brunt Ice Shelf , flying over spectacular patches of open sea and broken sea-ice, and as a bonus over a large colony of emperor penguins!

The edge of the Ronne Ice Shelf, viewed from an altitude of 3000 m. [Credit: R. Tartese].

After a long day flying we arrived in Halley where we have just enjoyed a great fish and chips dinner. Plans for the coming days are fluid, but it seems one of us will head off to the mountains tomorrow if the weather is good to start shifting some fuel around. In the meantime, Wouter might hopefully make his way down to Halley with the first half of the kit, then followed by Katie with the rest of the kit. Stay tuned!

The main module at Halley VI station [Credit: R. Tartese]

Weather waiting

Katie Joy | 31 Dec 2018

The waiting game continues and we need the clouds to clear further south before we can set off to the field. The Met team are sending over photos of the cloud cover to us along with a forecast each day, and things might possibly clear up in a day or to, so until then the Meteorite project is turning into the tea drinking project whilst we wait 🙂

Halley station has the amazing module setup that I posted a photo of before containing the operation and communication centre, a library and shared spaces along with science labs and field guide store areas. The station has many other smaller buildings and containers scattered around the vicinity — including the cosy container that is my accommodation I am sharing with field guide Julie and pilot Vicky. We are having our meals in the nearly Drewry Building, where others who work on site are living at the moment. This has network connections and a phone line where I can speak to people back home in the UK via a satellite link (the reception is amazingly better than I can get trying to call from my mobile in the village where I live close to the Peak District!).

In the meantime whilst we wait on the weather — Happy New Year from Halley to you all!

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Our accommodation cabins at Halley – portable and comfortable.

Hanging out at Halley

Katie Joy | 30 Dec 2018

A quick update – the weather has closed in around our field sites south of the Shackleton mountains, which means low cloud and poor contrast on the landing areas. It is also pretty overcast at Halley as well so we wont be flying out today. In Antarctica the work we do is dominated by the weather, so not a lot we can do but sit back and get on with a few other work tasks. We have packed up all the kit into our plane loads so that as soon as the weather clears we are ready to load and go — if not tomorrow, hopefully in a couple of days time. Send us good weather thoughts!

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Two person field kit for a four week field work plan (minus some additional skidoo fuel that will join us later on), loaded onto a large sledge ready to be dragged out to the skiway.

The plan of work for when we get into the field is to do a quick tour of several sites as a lightweight travel unit. We will return to a base camp each day, and in the day time head off with a skidoo each and a load of emergency kit in case of closing in weather conditions. After about a week or so we hope to do a longer traverse with all our kit piled onto three wooden Nansen style sledges , and head off to a different field area about 120 km away. This overland traverse is typically of BAS’s field team mobile work, and we will proceed as we access the terrain.

In terms of our field equipment — if you look back a few posts down you should see a photo of the pyramid style tents we will be using. A lot of the kit you can see in the photo above piled onto the sledge are items associated with the camp (boxes with a stove, cooking equipment, food supplies, field medical box, bags of camping kit including a sleeping bag and some nice mats to lie on in the tent) or skidoos (fuel, repair box). We will have a small generator so that we can generate power in the field to power our sat phones and GPS devices. We have some ice chippers and shovels for removal of snow and ice, and rescue equipment we will take with us each day in case of emergencies. And importantly we also have our science kit for collecting any meteorites we come across, and making sure they are bagged carefully.

It has taken a massive amount of logistical effort from many people at BAS to get us to this point — plane route flying and planning operations (and weather observation support), through to all the field guide planning and kit preparation, travel logistics, feeding me (!)  — an amazing amount of human hours and resources for which I and the rest of the meteorite project team back in Manchester and Cambridge are very grateful.

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Inside the belly of the Twin Otter — our flight over from Rothera to Halley. Two passengers sit in the front of the plane, with the cargo strapped down in the back. The big green bags you can see are our P-bags (personal kit bags) which include a sleeping back and other tent items to keep us cosy if we need to stop for a night somewhere. On our runs out to the field, we will likely do three Otter round trips as we need to take two large skidoos with us in the field, which require one flight each to fit into the plane.

Towards to the field… via Sky Blu and Halley research station

Katie Joy | 30 Dec 2018

We are nearly in the field and hope to reach our first field locality tomorrow if the weather is ok. Hopefully next time I send a blog it will be via a satellite phone directly from our field camp — but let’s not get too carried away as everything is adaptable in Antarctica…

We left Rothera three days ago on one of BAS’s twin otter planes. These lightweight hardy twin prop planes have both wheels and skis meaning that they can land at remote snow and ice runways. We knew that to make the trip from Rothera to Halley research station it would require two, possibly three refuels and we headed south first towards Fossil Bluff field site to the south of Rothera via some spectacular views of sedimentary cliffs and debris flows cascading down their steep flanks.

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Cliffs near Fossil Bluff field site — spectacular humbug-like interbedded sedimentary layers cross cut by debris flows.

After a quick refuel we ventured on to Sky Blu which is a blue icefield at about 1200 m above sea level and on the day was fairly warm at around –2°C. Sky Blu will be Geoff and Mike’s field site when they come down south to Antarctica in a couple of weeks. I had a very quick look along some rocks close to the runway area, didn’t spot any meteorites, but many of the local rocks have clearly sunken into the ice (known as a cryoconite hole), suggesting relatively warm local melt conditions.

There are three staff stationed at the runway, meeting field parties as they come through, refueling planes, and maintaining the field camp in the summer months. We had anticipated flying on from Sky Blu, but the weather at Halley (still some 5–6 hours flight away) closed in and was misty. We stayed the night at Sky Blu and had a great dinner and sat up chatting in the mess tent.

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GPS tracks of our aerial traverse route. Day 1 travel is shown in yellow and day 2 in light blue.
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Our all female flight across the continent. From left – Julie our field guide, Jen the flight engineer, Vicky our fab pilot and me.
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Loading up the Twin Otter at the our stop at BAS’s Sky Blu ice runway
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Cryoconite hole filled with water and with large (terrestrial magmatic) rock inside that has melted and sunk down into the blue ice

The next day brought better weather news and we headed off from Sky Blu around 9 am, taking a refuelling break at a site on the Ronne Iceshelf and then onto Halley research station, reaching here around 5 pm. The weather at Halley is cooler than at Rothera – currently at –5°C, with windchill it is around –10°C — but in the sun it doesn’t feel bad at all.

Halley station is actually number 6 in a series of BAS stations located in the area. The current incarnation is a spectacular space-station like series of interconnected modules that are on skis and that can be jacked up each year to rise up from the accumulating snow (there was a BBC Horizon show about the station in 2017 you can catch up on and if you want to take a 360 tour inside the station visit here).  The station currently is only a summer lived in station — it used to be all year around, but a spectacular fracture (nicknamed the Hallowe’en crack) opened up about 5 km from the station, and for safety the station is only occupied at the moment in the summer months — there are currently about 38 people on base. Halley serves as an atmospheric observation science centre, including ozone measurements and a lightning detector network, and also is at the heart of space weather (interaction of the solar wind with our magnetosphere and upper atmosphere) observations. The engineers are currently working on developing a new automation system to try and run some of the experiments through next year’s winter months.

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Halley research station site as seen during our landing. The modular base is located to the left of the frame with the large red central block. Other buildings including our accommodation block and the garage are located to the right.
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Halley modules up close.

The staff here have been amazing working hard to prepare our snowmobiles and field equipment – thanks to Richard for the tour of site, and to the engineers explaining the experiments they are working on. Whilst being at Halley we have been checking over our field kit to make sure it is all in good order and is weighed correctly for the flights, and working with Vicky our BAS pilot to prepare put in and collection sites for the field, using high-res imagery to try and find a range of places to be dropped off. We think it will take three flights of about 3 hours each way to get us and our two skidoos and sledges and kit to the field. Fingers crossed the skies will be clear tomorrow and we get out to some blue icefields to the south of the Shackleton mountain range to start our field campaign.