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Propped-up research base prevails

July 19, 2005 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

New Antarctic research station design unveiled.

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The British Antarctic Survey has announced the result of its competition to design a new research base on the frozen continent. The winning proposal offers researchers the opportunity to live in elevated modules perched on skis.

The station, which will weigh less than 800 tonnes, will sit nearly 4 metres above the snow, and is aerodynamically designed so that winds accelerate under it, sweeping loose snow away. As the overall snow level steadily rises, the building will be raised on extendable legs by a metre every year.

Thanks to the skis, the station can also be towed across the ice. The structure will be built on the Brunt Ice Shelf, which flows some 400 metres towards the sea each year. Initially positioned some 30 kilometres inland, the building will need to be moved some time within the next 10 to 20 years.

The station will replace the Halley V Research Station, the research base where the Antarctic ozone hole was first discovered. That building is now edging perilously close to the sea: scientists predict that a huge iceberg will break off from the shelf sometime around 2010, potentially taking the station with it.

No place like home

The replacement, a steel, timber and aluminium structure designed by Faber Maunsell and Hugh Broughton Architects, will hopefully make life easier in Antarctica's desolate climes. The building, which resembles a train of insects marching across the ice, features a central module containing recreation areas, flanked by modules for research and living quarters.

The central module also features large, triple-glazed picture windows; researchers living at several of Antarctica's 82 existing stations have complained of depression brought on by living in dark, cramped quarters, often completely buried by snow.

Much of the modules' structure will be prefabricated, meaning the modules will be quick and easy to assemble in the harsh Antarctic conditions. "From arriving at the site to getting a weatherproof base will take just 35 days," says Peter Ayres, a member of the Faber Maunsell team.

The station will also feature solar panels for summer use, along with the aviation fuel traditionally used to power remote buildings in freezing climates. Power requirements are far greater in summer, when the station will house a crew of 52 people, as opposed to winter, when just 16 (roughly half of them scientists) will live there.

Close call

The station will also potentially be able to use other renewable energy sources, such as wind power, although current technologies are not yet up to the job, says Ayres. "The conditions are so harsh that it's difficult to get robust enough equipment," he says. "We can't rely on it because the power is really life-critical."

Construction on the station will begin in early 2007, and the first residents are due to move in late the following year. When they arrive, they will largely focus on making measurements of the snow and ice, and of the atmospheric and meteorological conditions. And the perpetually dark winter will offer a chance to study the southern aurora, says British Antarctic Survey spokesman Andy J. Smith.

The survey's director Chris Rapley extended his congratulations to the winning team of architects. "This was an incredibly tough choice for the jury panel to make," he said. "We were presented with three outstanding schemes, each one of them creating an exceptional solution for living and working in this extreme environment."

Runners-up in the competition, organized in conjunction with the Royal Institute of British Architects, were designs featuring a "glowing translucent skin" and a building clad in a "puffer jacket" of insulating fabric pillows.

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