The Scientists Are Gone, but This Ghost Lab Is Still Doing Vital Research

Don't be fooled by its icy demeanor. The lights are very much on. British Antarctic Survey

Over the years, the Halley VI Research Station has done a lot of good work for humanity. In fact, from its frosty address in Antarctica, the lab first noted the hole in Earth's ozone layer back in the 1985.

Since then, as the name suggests, Halley has undergone a few iterations, but always with an eye on our planet's health — from monitoring climate change to surging sea levels.

But lately, the station has been doing a lot of good work without humanity. In fact, the lab that is normally staffed by scientists and engineers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has been devoid of life for months.

Halley VI Research Station under aurora.
The Halley VI has been keeping its solitary post since February. Sam Burrell

The station, perched precariously on the Brunt Ice Shelf and moving very slowly into the Weddell Sea, is just too dangerous for people.

As it flows away from the mainland, it's hard to gauge when and where the next chasm will appear and swallow the caterpillar-like base.

A massive chasm in an Antarctic ice shelf.
Massive chasms appearing in the ice shelf pose serious threats to researchers stationed there. British Antarctic Survey

"In January 2017, as a safety precaution, the Director of BAS took the decision not to winter a team at Halley following the detection of new and unpredictable ice crack on the Brunt Ice Shelf," the BAS notes on its website.

Since then, one of the loneliest research stations in the world has gotten even lonelier every winter, as staff members flee for warmer, safer climes.

But it turns out, the work is just too important to leave. So the base has been doing it on its own.

This year, for the first time since annual evacuations began, Halley VI didn't miss a beat — continuing to measure and monitor the climate, atmosphere and even space. All with nary a human in sight.

A front view of the Halley VI Research Station
The last of its human crew departed Halley VI in February. British Antarctic Survey

"We were confident we had a good design, but Antarctic winter conditions are brutal, so you never know exactly what might happen," BAS atmospheric scientist Thomas Barningham notes in a press release issued last week.

Indeed, the lab's innovative design is likely a factor in its surprising ability to persevere while floating on an ever-cracking ice sheet towards the open sea.

A side view of the Halley VI Research Station
Every module on the caterpillar-like station serves a purpose. British Antarctic Survey

Halley VI is made up of eight color-coded modules. The blue boxes house labs, generators and observation areas. That big red bump in the middle is communal space where staff members share a meal and maybe even a joke or two about the weather.

These days, it's all about the blue modules. Engineers have long been bracing the station for complete autonomy, as part of the Halley Automation Project — ensuring that the lights stay on and research continues come hell or, literally, high water.

An independent power core — engineers call it a "jet engine in a box" — keeps the computers and instruments humming, all while refueling itself at various intervals. To do that, it spins at a blinding 70,000 rotations per minute all day and all night for nine months straight. It's been spinning without a hitch for more than 136 days so far.

The micro-turbine and refueling system that powers Halley VI.
A micro-turbine and self-fueling system keep the station humming over winter. British Antarctic Survey

"This is the first time a micro-turbine has been used in Antarctica to power instrumentation autonomously," Barningham explains in the release. "We are delighted that our design is working and we can collect data during the cold and dark winter months."

So far, the system has taken a licking — winds at 43 knots, an ambient temperature of minus 43 degrees C — and kept ticking. In fact, BAS engineers note, the base uses just 10 percent of the power it does when occupied by humans.

Halley VI Research Station under the stars of Antarctica.
The station has a spectacular view of the heavens on most nights. British Antarctic Survey

Considering the research Halley VI conducts, that continuity is vital. And these days especially, science can't blink in its study of a rapidly changing planet. As such, the research can't afford to be shuttered over the winter. Even the previous two winters when Halley was shut down weigh heavily on the hearts of researchers.

"We've been measuring column ozone at Halley since the 1950s and so those two lost winters of data hang heavy on my heart, they really do," BAS science director David Vaughan tells the BBC.

"So, I'm really proud of the position we're now in."