Brunt Ice Shelf movement

Glaciological monitoring of Brunt Ice Shelf

Start date
6 November, 2011

This project uses a range of different technologies to monitor glaciological change on the 150-m thick Brunt Ice Shelf – which is home to the Halley VIa Research Station. Glaciologists classify very large cracks in the ice shelf which clearly go all the way through to the sea as “chasms”, and narrow cracks that go an indeterminate depth as crevasses. The project uses data from a variety of in situ instruments on the ice shelf, satellite data, and numerical model of the ice shelf, to understand the changing risk to our operations and infrastructure on the Brunt Ice Shelf.

Chasm 1

In 2012 satellite monitoring revealed the first signs of movement in a chasm (Chasm 1) that had lain dormant for at least 35 years.  This growth has implications for the operations of Halley VI Research Station. In the 2015/16 field season glaciologists used ice penetrating radar technologies to ‘ground truth’ satellite images and to calculate the most likely path and speed of Chasm 1. In 2016/17, the Halley technical, vehicle, science and operational teams successfully moved the Halley VI station to a new, safer location on the ice shelf.

GPR survey on the Brunt Ice Shelf
GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) survey on the Brunt Ice Shelf
GPR survey on the Brunt Ice Shelf
BAS Scientist checking the data recording during a GPR survey on the Brunt Ice Shelf

‘Halloween’ Crack

In October 2016 a new crack was detected some 17km to the north of the research station across the route sometimes used to resupply Halley.  This ‘Halloween’ crack may cause a large iceberg to calve which would have an impact on the remaining ice shelf.

Together, Chasm-1 and Halloween Crack, form a complex glaciological situation, whose final outcome is uncertain.  The closure of Halley VI during recent winters was a precaution during a period when evacuation of the station would be difficult.

Ice monitoring technologies

The Brunt Ice Shelf is probably the closely and thoroughly observed ice shelf on Earth.  A network of 17 GPS instruments measure the deformation of the ice every day.  European Space Agency satellite imagery (Sentinel 2), NASA Worldview satellite images, US Landsat 8 images, ground penetrating radar, and on-site drone footage provide key information on any growth of the cracks.  These data provide science teams with a number of ways to measure the width of Chasm 1 and changes to ‘Halloween’ crack with very high precision.  Scientists use the data in computer models and bathymetric maps to determine whether or not a large iceberg will calve.

The primary early warning system used by BAS to inform BAS operation on the Brunt Ice shelf is the innovative ApRES (Autonomous phase-sensitive Radio Echo Sounder) system developed in a collaboration between BAS and UCL to monitor ice shelf changes.  This radar measures precisely the width of Chasm 1 every two hours and is used to inform daily operations on the Brunt Ice Shelf.

Seabed bathymetry and recent grounding history

A significant calving event is imminent at the Brunt Ice Shelf as Chasm 1 approaches the McDonald Ice Rumples. The future of the ice shelf depends on the trajectory of Chasm 1. If it progresses upstream of the McDonald Ice Rumples (MIR), the ice shelf could become structurally detached from the bed. The alternative is that Chasm 1 progresses downstream of the pinning point at the ice rumples, the ice shelf remains in contact with the bed, and retains its structural integrity.

About Brunt Ice Shelf change

  • Ice shelf movement is unpredictable. Scientists use a range of different technologies to monitor the changes to chasms and other ice features.
  • In 2012 satellite monitoring of the Brunt ice shelf revealed the first signs of movement in a chasm that had lain dormant for at least 35 years. Glaciologists classify very large cracks in the ice shelf which clearly go all the way through to the sea as “chasms”, and narrow cracks that go an indeterminate depth as crevasses or cracks.
  • Glaciologists monitored this movement closely to determine whether or not the chasm was likely to grow
  • In 2015/16 field season glaciologists used ice penetrating radar technologies to ‘ground truth’ satellite images and calculated the most likely path and speed of the crack. Monitoring continues
  • 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.  Glaciologists are monitoring routes closely.

About the Brunt Ice Shelf

The Brunt Ice Shelf is the floating extension of the grounded ice sheet. It is composed of freshwater ice that originally fell as snow, either in situ or inland and brought to the ice shelf by glaciers. Cracks appear continuously on ice shelves as the ice deforms. Frequently, cracks that form during the summer months heal again over winter. At Halley a long-term ice-monitoring project, that uses satellite and radar data, detected new growth in a chasm that has been dormant for around 30 years.

Observations reveal that a particular feature – Chasm A – has been growing continuously since 2012. Observations revealed that the crack tip is moving gradually upstream of the research station.  The research station was relocated to avoid this chasm.

Modified Copernicus Sentinel data (October 2017), processed by ESA, of the Brunt Ice Shelf

The aim of this project is to provide the best scientific intelligence to:

  • enable safe operation of Halley VI Research Station through its lifetime
  • use the most satellite and ground-based technologies to inform operational decision-making
  • inform other long-running ice dynamics research programmes

The future of the ice shelf depends on the trajectory of Chasm 1. If it progresses upstream of the McDonald Ice Rumples (MIR), the ice shelf could become structurally detached from the bed. The alternative is that Chasm 1 progresses downstream of the pinning point at the ice rumples, the ice shelf remains in contact with the bed, and retains its structural integrity. To provide scientific evidence for an assessment of the future stability of the ice shelf and its infrastructure BAS researchers will:

  • make direct measurements of the thickness of the ice shelf and depth to the bed in a transect away from the MIR to calibrate existing radar and bathymetry data;
  • take a series of sediment cores along the transect to examine the history of ice shelf grounding at the ice rumples. Here we use the onset of biogenic sedimentation in the cores and examine the sedimentary facies that are diagnostic of the presence/absence of past ice shelf grounding.

Halley Research Station will not winter in 2018

31 October, 2017

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has decided, for safety reasons, that it will close its Halley VI Research Station during the 2018 Antarctic winter.  This will be the second time that …


Halley VI Research Station – relocation success

2 February, 2017

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has successfully relocated Halley VI Research Station to its new home on the Brunt Ice Shelf.  Operational teams have spent the past 13 weeks moving each …



Relocation of Halley Research Station

6 December, 2016

British Antarctic Survey is getting ready to move its Halley VI Research Station 23 km across the ice.  This is the first time that the station, which has a re-locatable …