Engineering in the Antarctic

The new Antarctic research station, Halley VI, was designed with scientists in mind. But what are the challenges of Antarctic engineering?
28 February 2013

Interview with 

Karl Tuplin, British Antarctic Survey; Peter Ayres, Aecom


Antarctica is one of the most challenging environments on Earth, but despite of this, there's lots of scientific research that needs to take place in Antarctica to help us to understand the world around us.  

We were joined by Karl Tuplin who's the Project Manager for the British Antarctic Survey's Halley VI project and Peter Ayres from Aecom, who were both involved in engineering the project As well as Tamsin Gray from British Antarctic Survey who was able to share her personal experiences of working there. 

Chris - What's actually the vision for Halley VI?  What was needed down in Antarctica? 

Karl - Well, we're going to lose the old station.  The ice shelf's going to carve off, so we're going to lose it, so we need a new one.  Exactly where that carving line was going to be, it's quite difficult to predict.

Chris - So, you're literally going to have your old station float away on an iceberg?

Karl -  We would've done. We've managed to demolish it and cleared it now, but we would've done yes.  Exactly where the carving line is going to be was difficult to predict and during the design of the new station, there are some big chasms behind it, so it's going to make the ice shelf a little bit more stable.  

So, one of the visions for the new one is it had to be relocatable. We had to be able to move it because we don't want to be spending huge sums of money again, building another station in 10, 20 years' time. So, that was one of the visions.  

A couple of the other factors were, we wanted something that was going to be stimulating for scientists to work in. Previous stations were nice, square, boxy, very good engineering point of view, but not necessarily the most stimulating place to live or work. So, we got architects involved to try and produce a better place to live, to work.  

Further, there's a lot of effort needed to survive in the Antarctic, a lot of work because the main aims of science there, we're trying to reduce the amount of effort to survive, to make it easier to live there.

Chris - Were you at the previous station, Tamsin?

Tamsin - Yeah, that's right.

Chris - What's it actually like when people just think, I'll nip off down to Proud Halley VI Project Manager - Karl TuplinAntarctica. What's actually involved in being down there? What's it like?

Tamsin - Day to day life is quite different from back here. So, to get all the water to drink you know just for washing and showering and things, we had to go outside and shovel snow in a big team for about an hour everyday into a hole to melt. Although now with a new station, they've got machines doing a lot of that work for them. So, just every day, you know, you walk to work, sometimes I could fall over 7 times in big snowdrifts because there's a blizzard going on and I could barely see my hand in front of my face. So, there's just all sorts of challenges that you wouldn't really think about with life back here.

Chris - Have you sorted those challenges out, Karl?

Karl - Yes. For instance, on the water side where it used to be, people shovelling snow into what we call a melt tank a long shaft down to a big kettle under the ice. Now, we have modified shipping containers with large tanks in it and heating goes at the bottom and it can open the doors on the lid of the container and just pull those snow in so it makes it a lot easier, a lot simpler, and you can melt a lot more water.

Chris - And then you're spending time doing research, not just shovelling.

Karl - So yes, it's less people required to do this little work so you're spending the money on science rather than on the station's support.

Chris - Peter from Aecom, the engineers behind this project. What's actually involved in building something like this as far away and in those sort exigent extremes that we get in Antarctica?

Peter A. - Well, Halley VI is without a doubt, the most challenging building we have ever been involved in designing. Just starting with the climate in Antarctica which is incredibly cold, it goes to minus 56 degrees centigrade on the site, over 100 mile an hour winds, 106 days of continuous darkness in winter. And so, just building in a cold climate in itself is a very, very challenging thing to do. But Halley was special even by Antarctic's standards. It is the world's first fully relocatable research base and so, we had to design a building that was fleet of foot if you like, that was able to be moved, but also was robust enough to survive the incredibly challenging environment. And I guess the most challenging thing of all in fact was the logistics, the supply chain, how we would bring the materials to Antarctica to build the base.

Chris - It's not just any old materials either, is it, because someone said to me the other day and really made me think, you can't weld metal in Antarctica in the same way as you could knock a few bits of metal together in a warmer place?

Peter A. - Well, there are lots of things you wouldn't want to do in Antarctica because you're constantly working in sub-zero temperatures. So, that means you have to be generally in pretty warm clothes with thick gloves, and things like that. So, even things like bolting, you want bolts that are big enough that you can handle them with gloves and you want components that can be clipped together. But probably, the most overwhelming constraint of all is that because of the short summer season when people can generally work there in construction, you only have about 12 weeks within which you can actually build anything. 

You would immediately think, "Let's pre-fabricate things and just ship them in." But there's another constraint which is that, because the base is built on a floating ice shelf, everything has to be delivered by ship and it has to be towed across very fragile frozen sea ice. And so, that constraint says that you have to limit the size of every component you take to Antarctica. So really, the whole design to some degree was dictated by those two key constraints. On the one hand, you want things to be as big and pre-fabricated as possible. On the other hand, everything has to be small enough to be shipped across the sea ice. And when you put those two constraints together, that's effectively the starting point for how we conceptualize the design.

Chris - So Karl, do you say to Peter, "This is what we want..." and then he says, "This is what I can do." I mean, how does it work?

Karl - No, it's the other way around really. This is Halley VI, so we've built 5 stations before. The Halley VI, what we wanted, just go out to the marketplace and see what the best this marketplace could actually do - the engineers, the architects, the construction teams, and see what they can come up with.  So, what we did, we presented them with the problems because there's a lot to understand and take in all in one go. So, what we actually did was launch a multi-stage design competition and started that competition by showing the teams the problems of the Antarctica and what they had to overcome and then said, "Go away and come up with your ideas of what would you design." We didn't expect those designs to work, but we want to see what ideas are out there to overcome the problems.

There were 6 teams who did that and then we narrowed it down to three of those teams, the one we thought who had the most potential, the designs that had the most potential to stay forward, and we put a BAS team with each one of them, so the BAS team had the Antarctica knowledge and we put a contractor with each team as well. So, you had three teams running and each team, the designers had the design, concepts and they had BAS who had the Antarctic and the logistics knowledge, and you have the contractor who had the build and the procurement knowledge. In that way, we then had three designs in the country, running together to try and come up with the best one.

Chris - And that was you, Peter. So, how did you actually delivered this?  What's the process for getting this new station erected in Antarctica? What did you actually do?

Peter A. - Well, as I said before, one of the key things was to The blue ice covering Lake Fryxell, in the Transantarctic Mountainspre-fabricate as much as possible. When we originally turned up on the ice with a great big Russian chartered icebreaker ship, we had steel frames which form the basis of our modular building. So, the building is, in fact, made up of a series of 8 pod buildings if you like. They're pretty big.  They weigh in excess of 100 tons each. Each of them is based on a steel frame which is pre-fabricated, loaded onto the ship, dropped off on the ice on special skis that are made just for the transit and towed to the site. And from there on, all of the different components are kind of modularised pre-fabricated components that as far as possible, click together to make the base.

The pods are founded on giant hydraulic legs which allow the base to climb mechanically out of the snow every year. They're founded on huge skis which are the same technology of the skis you use on sledges, but much, much bigger so the buildings can be move. And then we bring all of the rooms that form the base are pre-fabricated modular bed rooms and plant rooms, toilets, etc. Those get loaded on top of the steel frames and then we developed a very innovative fibre reinforced plastic composite cladding system which provided the final resistance to the weather which was very well sealed and thermo-insulated enclosure to keep everybody safe and sound inside.

Chris - Which is good to hear and dare I ask price tag?

Peter A. - Are we going to give that price, Karl?

Karl -  Yes. The actual construction contract is just on the 26 million, 25.8, 25.9 million.

Chris - Actually, I thought it was going to be more.

Karl - That's the construction contract and the total project is under 50 million.

Chris - Peter's wage bill?

Karl - I'd use bonus on him. Yeah, just under 50 million is the total price tag.  That's all the logistics and everything to make it happen.


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