Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Don't worry - We have a plan!!

 Bit of a long one this guys!

So how are we going to get all of these buildings/containers and radio antennae out of the snow, move them 24km across the ice and set them up again at the new site. Well to paraphrase Baldrick from ‘Blackadder’ – we have a cunning plan!

The ‘plan’ was actually conceived over a couple of years ago in Cambridge(in fact things were well underway before I even applied for this job in August 2015). The main issue, is that Antarctica only really experiences two seasons. ‘Winter’ which lasts from March until November and ‘Summer’ which is the 4 month period that isn’t Winter. Summer is the only time where you can realistically move people and equipment onto and off of the continent (certainly on the Brunt – other bases are more or less accessible) and get any significant work done. If you consider getting large cargo in by ship, then the period is even shorter – end of December to early March is the only time they can get through the sea ice. This leaves a very short work window especially when you remember that the temperature here almost never gets above 0oC and bad weather can delay flights/movement and work.
So the ‘Halley Relocation Project’ as it is properly known takes place over 3 years. Last Antarctic Summer a new site was selected on the Brunt Ice Shelf – it had to be far enough east that it was worthwhile moving (i.e. it would be on the right side of the crack that is developing) but also in a reasonably flat area – one flat enough to put the modules on and build a skiway, it also needed to be free from large holes, cracks and crevices – this is the most painstaking point to prove because although you can see a lot of detail from satellite images, falling snow can form thin bridges over large cracks in the ice making them invisible! The only way to detect them is to drive over the ice towing a sledge carrying a special radar device that points down – it measures the density of the ice and can pick up significant gaps (for any medics reading this the images look very similar to those from the vascular access ultrasound probe – in fact it’s the same principle only with radio waves rather than sound waves and a similar trade off between penetration and resolution with wavelength!) Once the site was chosen and proved safe (hours of driving up and down in a grid on a skidoo for the glaciologist and field guides) it was properly surveyed and the position of buildings etcetera marked with flags. It was also named site 6A – The 6 in Halley 6 (or Halley VI) refers to the base rather than the location so no Halley 7 yet! There was, I believe some debate over whether the current site should be 6A and the new site 6B but 6 and 6A were chosen instead. At the conclusion of the move it will simply be know as Halley 6 again. The other thing that occurred last year was that most of the equipment that we will use to effect the move was dropped off by ship (those of you that watched the BBC Horizon documentary: Ice Station Antarctica will have seen Peter Gibbs on board the RSS Ernest Shackleton delivering that cargo – you can see a lot of the red shipping containers on the deck of the ship!). There are several prefabricated shipping containers to provide temporary accommodation, vehicles including bulldozers and cranes and lots of tools, steel work and extra food. When you only get a delivery once or twice over a 3 month period every year you have to make sure you have everything you need and plenty of spares – we can’t just pop to the local DIY shop if something is missing! That equipment was stored on site over the winter – the large containers and vehicles were sealed against the elements and placed on a large berm made of snow to prevent them from getting too buried in. Some of the food (7 one tonne bags) was buried in the snow to keep it frozen and the rest was stored in containers or on the station.
The plan divides the camp into 2 areas, the modules plus surrounding infrastructure required for life down here such as garage and vehicles, and the science. Given that ‘the science’ is the entire reason that Halley is down here we want to try and keep it running continuously. So this summer is just going to focus on moving the modules and surrounding bits of kit. Although Halley VI was designed to be moved it is still a bit of an unknown undertaking. The modules were dragged into position when they were first made but since then they have been fitted out with heavy bits of kit like generators and have had to survive several winters with everything Antarctica has to throw at them (a few years ago in the middle of a power failure when the inside of the living areas reached -20oC the lowest ever temperature was recorded at Halley -55.4oC – you can read a bit about it from the doctor at the time here! ). The science equipment – all the cabooses and radar arrays will remain at the current site and be looked after by a small camp. The modules will (hopefully) be set up at the new site and next summer we will come back and move the science infrastructure one bit at a time. Simples!

So how will it work – Warning! More poorly drawn diagrams on the way!!! (keep an eye out for the penguin)

1)    Halley 6 site at the beginning of this summer season. The modules all working and the science cabooses all connected, nothing at site 6A yet

2)    Establish a ‘Winter Science Camp’, This is basically disconnecting the science equipment from the modules so that they are running off a separate generator set, rerouting all the networking and data communications kit and converting the WASP(see last post on what the WASP is) into a small accommodation block – enough for 3-4 people to live in at a time over winter. They will keep the power on and the science running!
The Winter Science Camp, the WASP is being converted to accomodation, there are generators, fuel tanks and a few containerised offices for the scientist to work from.

3)    Build some temporary accommodation for people to live in while the modules are decommissioned. The temporary camp is a series of shipping containers bolted together – they contain a kitchen, fridges, freezers, bathrooms, boot room, plant room with a boiler and melt tank, and bedrooms. There is a large tent on the end which forms the dining room. It is powered by two stand alone generators. The temporary camp at 6 was mostly complete by the time I arrived on station. It was still a couple of weeks before we moved out of the modules completely though.

The temporary camp at 6A (looking south from the back of the Drewry) - some storage containers in the foreground. The large red rectangle in the middle (I know they're all red rectangles - the one with cables coming out of it) is the WASP, before it got towed to the south end of the modules.

The site with the winter science camp in situ but before the modules have been moved. The WASP is the large red rectangle to the left of the modules. You can just make out the temporary camp between the modules and the Drewery which is far right.
4)    Groom the route between 6 and 6A. The site was actually marked out with flags last year but this summer is when the route is actually properly prepared – a special grooming attachment on the back of one of the Pisten Bully’s agitates the snow so that it melts slightly then it is pushed flat and freezes solid – anyone who has been skiing will recognise the corduroy appearance of the snow after it has been groomed.

5)    Once the temporary camp is complete the modules can be powered off and the process of decommissioning them can begin. The facilities team are using the opportunity to repair/replace some piping and upgrade some bits of kit. We got to this stage in mid December.

Some pictures of the end module H2 being separated from the main set. Rather than drag it initially we use heavy duty winches to slowly move it away.

6)    While all this is happening another temporary camp is constructed at the new site – this is to house the people who will put the modules back together again. Pretty much the same as the first camp it has a one more bedroom, and a surgery (consisting of two containers next to each other with room for a treatment room, office and storage of all the drugs and equipment). Shortly after this camp was up and running we brought the garage across so that we could run resupply from this camp (resupply is the subject of a whole other post). I've put a load of pictures from the construction of this camp below.
7)    When the modules have been fully prepped then they are separated from each other, lowered down on their telescopic legs, braced and attached to a line of vehicles to drag them across to the site. This is where we are now in the process, the first two modules (H2 and H1 the two science modules – see the previous post) have come across really easily and the third is due tonight. The towing takes place at night because although we have 24 hour daylight the temperature does drop in the evening and the road becomes firmer. The aim is to keep the modules moving at a steady pace to reduce stresses on the legs and to prevent them from sinking into the snow. Tonight will be the real test as it is one of the service modules which has the heavy generators in – around 140 tonnes of module to move!
8)    This is the situation we will hopefully be in by the end of this summer season. The modules and infrastructure all in place at 6A and fully re-commissioned. The temporary camps dismantled and shipped out and the winter science camp running independently.
9)    Over the winter 3-4 people will live at the winter science camp. One of our field guides to keep people out of mischief, a generator mechanic to keep the power on and a scientist or two to keep all the equipment working. They will rotate back to the main base every 10 days or so and change over with a new team. (The normal winter team consists of 13 people but we have an extra field guide and generator mechanic this year – as well as an extra vehicle mechanic to keep all the vehicles running). The opportunity to travel like this in winter is quite unique – not many places get to travel this far through the depths of winter and the chance to get off base for a bit of a ‘holiday’ is exciting.
10) At the beginning of the next summer season at Halley (November 2017) we will take each of the science cabooses off line one by one, bring them over to the new site and get them running again. Although this is a fairly epic task on it’s own – after this summer season it should seem pretty straight forward and wont require as many people or the temporary camps.
11) By the end of summer next year (February 2018) just as I’m getting ready to leave we should have completed the relocation project with all of the modules, science and infrastructure up and running at the new site – to then be called Halley 6.

So that’s what I’ve been up to this past month – helping to put together the temporary camp at site 6A. I have no particular plumbing/electrical or carpentry skills – that’s why they hired plenty of tradesmen to do that, but it turns out I can pitch tents and build shelving units (also the 9 months I spent stacking shelves at the local supermarket before medical school turned out really useful).

Here are a few pictures of us at work building the temporary camp at 6A in early December.

Kitchen on the left, bedrooms behind

The tent structure

Digging a trench to bury in the 'dead men' - wooden anchors that get frozen into the snow and stop the tent from blowing away
Starting to get a roof on! Entrance way on the right, plant room on the left, washroom behind the plant room

The floor of the tent is a layer of plywood, then insulation foam then tongue and groove chipboard
Inside the containers when we first opened them!

The plant room - at the back is the water melt tank
The boot room for thawing out clothing! (Needs a little thawing it out itself by the looks of things)
My surgery - the shovel is for the foot of snow waiting for me at the door

The first team to spend the night at 6A - No plumbing at the time (though we did have a yellow bucket) and the generator packed up after a couple of hours but the rooms were warm by then

Wiring and plumbing going in

Building desks

The completed boot room

Inside the reefer - walk in fridge it actually warms the incoming air form outside on most days! (shelving by Neil)
Evening entertainment - just don't hit the tent, it cost more than some houses!

Bedrooms looking a little more homely

My surgery up and running - complete with purple curtains!
It's a bit of a squeeze but has everything I need

Yours truly trying to remember what all these different drugs are for!!!
The easiest way to fill the melt tank - hail a friendly passing Pisten Bully

Z is the code for Halley - it is the last station east in the British Antarctic Territory and is on GMT (Zulu time)

Construction complete

Raising the flag
 Right that's it for tonight. We are expecting the third module over at about 2am, hopefully get you some pictures up in the near future. All well down here at the moment. More to come - stay tuned.


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