A new exhibition called Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctica looks at some of the newest and most innovative designs, real and imagined, for scientific research centres in Antarctica. 

The British Antarctic Survey’s Halley research base, unveiled earlier this year, is just one of the buildings featured in the Ice Lab exhibition, which has just opened at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry.

The Halley VI station is where scientists study the Earth’s atmosphere, providing information key to understanding ozone depletion and climate change. 

Photo: Halley VI station, A.Dubbar, British Antarctic Survey

It is designed to withstand temperatures of up to minus 55 degrees Celsius, but have a minimal impact on the environment. 

Moving home can be a nightmare

Mike Pinnock is head of physical sciences at the British Antarctic Survey, and he’s been travelling to Antarctica regularly since 1976. 

I asked him what British Antarctic scientists ideally want from a research station.

“One of the main things, particularly if you’re living on an ice shelf, is a stable, warm platform that you don’t keep having to rip your instruments out of and move to other places because of what’s happening to the ice shelf,” he says. 

“And that’s what the new Halley station delivers because it’s a completely relocatable base, so that as the ice shelf grows and potentially you will have ‘calving’ events, i.e. icebergs will start breaking off from it, we can lift the station up onto its skis and tow it further inland and stay in the same housing.” 

“Whereas up until now, every 10 years we’ve been having to take all the science out of the station, move to a new station, and that’s a major disruption to all the observations, it’s a lot of work, and it’s also quite expensive.” 

Photo: Halley VI station, James Morris

The first Halley station opened in 1956 and the first four were buried under a natural accumulation of ice. 

Shifting foundation

Snow accumulates in this part of Antarctica at a rate of 1.5 metres a year, meaning that anything constructed on the surface will eventually be buried. 

But thanks to advances in technology, engineers and architects have now been able to design a station that can both stay on the surface and be moved from place to place. 

That means moving structures as heavy as two hundred tons across the ice. 

Photo: Staff at Halley VI launching a weather balloon which will take samples from the atmosphere, British Antarctic Survey

Mike Pinnock says the new station resembles a train. 

“If you’re stood outside it, what you see is a bit like a train in that there’s a series of modules that are coupled together, and in fact the couplings are not dissimilar to the couplings between railway carriages, but it means that you can break these couplings and tow a module away, hence the relocatable base,” he says. 

'Thunderbirds' modules

“So from the outside the modules are very large, boxy structures that are on four legs with skis at the foot of them. 

“Nearly all the modules are blue, and then there’s one very big red module with a large window set in the side of it which is the main living accommodation, that’s the heaviest module. 

“If anybody’s ever seen the Thunderbirds TV puppet programme, I always think the modules look like something out of that,”he says. 

Inside, the base is bright and colourful, making it cheerier than previous stations. 

Photo: Inside Halley VI by Hugh Broughton Architects and AECOM, image © James Morris

But as Mike Pinnock points out, landscapes in this section of Antarctica are not always starkly white. 

“Although people might think that in the Antarctic, it’s completely dark outside, that’s not entirely true. When you get full moon nights on the ice shelf, it can be astonishingly light – you can walk around outside without the aid of torches. 

“And also, during the winter, around midday, you get an orange glow on the northern horizon. And then of course there’s the spectacular aurora, the southern lights, in the case of Halley. 

Photo: NCAOR

“I often liken the ice shelf to the ocean. To people who are not sailors or yachtsmen, the ocean looks all the same, but when you speak to yachtsmen they’ll tell you there’s constant variety in the sea and its state. The ice shelf is similar.” 

Russian project held in high regard

Russia was not part of the Ice Lab exhibition, because it has not built new stations recently. Its key research outpost, Vostok station in East Antarctica, was built in the 1970s. Its buildings are more utilitarian than Halley, but they also have to withstand a far tougher environment, where temperatures drop to minus 70 degrees or more.

And, as at the Halley station, some staff live there all year round – but the conditions are considerably more severe. 

Pinnock holds the Russian project in high regard. 

“Vostok looks incredible and I’m full of admiration for anybody who winters at Vostok,” he says. “It must be a very hard place, with the temperatures, really extreme - well, the coldest place on earth.” 

In any case, Vostok is different from Halley in countless ways, says Pinnock. For instance, Vostok is 3,500 metres above sea level, making it difficult to breathe – whereas Halley is just 15 metres above the sea. 

Would he like to visit? Pinnock does not hesitate to answer. 

“Certainly if someone were to offer me the chance, I wouldn’t turn it down,” he says. “It does look like an absolutely fascinating place.” 

As well as Halley VI, the exhibition showcases three other unusual Antarctic research outposts, and an experimental design for a station made entirely from ice.

Ice Lab has been curated by Sandra Ross of The Arts Catalyst, an organisation which specialises in artworks that engage with science. 

Photo: Ice Diamond, Torsten Lauschmann

She’s keen to bring science to a wider audience through the exhibition, going beyond the usual sentimental pictures of penguins. 

Sandra told me how she chose which stations to focus on. 

“I created a baseline of looking at architecture that happened in the last decade. These stations take - from drawing board to actual realisation - on average five to eight years. New buildings don’t happen often in Antarctica, so there wasn’t a huge pool to choose from.” 

And different countries have different approaches to their Antarctic missions.

“Some I would say are transparent and have a very strong PR interface, including the British Antarctic Survey or Belgium’s International Polar Foundation she says. “Some are a little bit more secretive, something like Concordia, which is a joint French-Italian initiative, They don’t have such a public interface.” 

Photo: International Polar Foundation, René Robert

Antarctica, it seems, is still in many ways a secret and a secretive place. 

But if you want to learn a little more about the frozen continent, the Ice Lab exhibition is in Manchester until early January.

Lake Vostok - Antarctic secrets coming to light

Halley Research Station - being there

(Voice of Russia)