Cracks in the ice

So the big Antarctic news today (7 Dec 16) is all based on this press release put out yesterday by British Antarctic Survey, the government body coordinating the UK’s polar research, about their intention to move the Halley Research Station away from an expanding chasm in the ice shelf on which Halley sits.

First, hats off to BAS for keeping their story in the national conversation – from David Attenborough launching Boaty McBoatface to this sort of stuff in the Sun. The work they do is vital for all of us, and it’s right that it should get the widest possible airing.

The Guardian picked up on the release here. So did the Telegraph here, but regrettably with a badly worded, scare-mongering story, saying Halley is “in danger of falling into a huge chasm.” That might the case if Halley isn’t moved in the next few years – but it is being moved, so that danger is negligible, and it’s misleading to suggest otherwise. Also, the reporter says the modules will be shifted “on the back of” large tractors – they won’t: as BAS said, they’ll be towed – and then she confuses the story by adding in some unrelated stuff about cosmic dust.

Poor journalism and poor science from the Telegraph, to add to their ignominiously purple-prosed fail from last year: “It has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood disaster movie.” Huh.

First, the Halley move is not new news. It’s been known about for at least a year. New Scientist reported on it last December. I went to Halley in January & February this year as part of the first media team to visit since 1999, hosted by BAS to make a documentary for BBC Radio 4 with weather presenter Peter Gibbs. That was broadcast in March – and we covered the chasm issue then, talking to a glaciologist on site (audio from 15:14).

Peter also filed this piece for the BBC in May, including a TV news package about the chasm. And Peter’s Horizon on BBC2 in May featured the chasm story prominently.

So, again, hats off to BAS for keeping a year-old story in the headlines.

But fewer hats off to Britain’s science journalists for missing the significance of a crucial piece of new information, which – as so often in press releases – comes in the very last line:

In October 2016 a new crack emerged some 17km to the north of the research station across the route sometimes used to resupply Halley. This route will not now be used as alternative relief sites are available.

This is serious. This new crack cuts off the supply route to Halley from the docking point known as “N9”.

Other than small aircraft, the only way into Halley is by sea. But there is no infrastructure for docking. The edge of the ice shelf is mostly cliffs – too high and unstable to scale. In a few places, the cliffs are low enough that ships can nudge up alongside, carving out their own docking-place to allow transfer of cargo onto the ice surface, for moving by Snocat to Halley itself many miles inland.

Since its founding sixty years ago, Halley has had two access points: “N9”, where the ice shelf comes right down almost to sea level, enabling access, and the “Creeks”, where gaps between fingers of ice cliff are filled by compacted snow-ramps, easing access to the ice surface.

Which to choose is down to the skill of the ship’s captain at the time – gauging reports of sea ice conditions in the area, monitoring radar and satellite or drone imagery, years of personal experience in the ice…

N9 is often easier to reach – it’s further north, and the swirl of sea ice in the Weddell Sea, which creates clear “leads” along the shore, can keep it relatively ice-free, compared to the Creeks. But N9 is further from Halley, meaning more time, resources and – as always in Antarctica – risk in the transfer of people and cargo from ship to base.

When I arrived, in late January 2016, sea ice was light. N9 was clear. We didn’t even go near the Creeks. This is N9, in the picture I took.

But now, BAS is saying that N9 is no longer usable because a crack has opened in the last few weeks between there and Halley.

For the ship captains, it looks like it’s now the Creeks, or nothing. And if the Creeks are inaccessible – because of dense sea ice, or bad weather, or some other factor – then the ship can’t get in at all. And that will seriously threaten the chances for successful execution of this phase of the relocation, in the short time window before winter sets in.

BAS will be worried.

The emergence of this new crack must also be raising questions about the stability of the ice shelf as a whole – hinted at in BAS’s overlooked, ever-so-bland line “Glaciologists are monitoring routes closely.” Long-dormant cracks in the shelf are not only coming to life, but expanding rapidly, downwards to the sea surface and lengthways to the coast in both directions. New ones are appearing, cutting off long-used access routes. It’s not a “Hollywood disaster movie”, as per Telegraph, but it must be exercising minds. Predicting movement of ice shelves is like predicting earthquakes – desperately difficult, and the closest we can realistically get is educated guesswork. Often in Antarctica it’s a scientific exercise with no short-term impact. But in this case, the lives of the people at Halley – and lots of British taxpayers’ money – depend on the scientists’ figuring out what, if anything, is going on with Brunt Ice Shelf all of a sudden. (Though that “sudden” needs scare quotes…)

That’s another reason why that innocuous last line of BAS’s matters. All of this is unforeseen expense. As BAS has successfully driven home to the media, Halley VI was designed to move – but nothing I’ve read so far has pointed out that it wasn’t intended to be moved this soon. Halley VI has only been in location and operational since February 2013. Shutting everything down and moving it, less than 4 years later, wasn’t in the original plan. That was forced on BAS by the long-dormant chasm “suddenly” starting to expand in 2013. (That was unlucky: had the crack been seen to expand a couple of years earlier, Halley VI might not have been sited where it was.)

And what is the cost of moving it? That hasn’t been made public, but it’s safe to assume it’s several tens of millions of pounds.

There was more expense – and more uncertainty – in July 2014, when Halley’s power failed in the middle of winter, shutting down life-support systems, endangering the on-site crew, and necessitating costly repairs in the months thereafter.

And now this new crack cutting off access via N9 threatens yet more expense if ships can’t, for whatever reason, use the Creeks.

Marry that up with the massive changes afoot in BAS. Amid the fanfare about Boaty and the new Attenborough ship, the reality is that BAS’s logistical and science operation will in 2019 (or shortly thereafter) be going down from two ships at present, to one. Can one ship do the work of two? What are the operational adjustments required for supply and cargo transfer – and will the science still get done? Nobody is quite sure just yet. Scroll down this BBC page to listen to BAS’s director Jane Francis discuss that problem in detail.

With all that in mind, as I said at the beginning, hats off to BAS – both for the incredible work they do, and for the brilliant messaging they deliver to the media about that work.