Suspended just above the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, on a narrow granite ridge, the Princess Elisabeth research station stands proud. And with good reason: the futuristic-looking pod, covered from head to toe in solar panels — and home to countless scientists every year — is completely emission-free.
In a place as inhospitable as Antarctica, that’s no mean feat. Temperatures regularly dance around the -10 degree mark in summer, dropping to below -40 in winter. It’s too cold to use concrete foundations for wind turbines, and too cold to store energy in large batteries.
Yet the research station has found a way. Created by Belgian explorer Alain Hubert, a founder of the International Polar Foundation, the centre is doing in the most extreme conditions what most of the world fails to do in relative comfort: create a life that is in sync with nature, rather than a source of pollution.
Addressing a real need
For the many climate change researchers who visit Antarctica, drastically reducing their carbon footprint is an obvious priority. As Dr Kate Winter, Research Fellow of Antarctic Science at Northumbria University, writes in the Conversation, she’s “embarrassed by the carbon footprint I have when I travel to, and work in, Antarctica.”
She continues: “Researchers based in the UK regularly take four or five flights to reach the continent and the stations we visit rely on electricity from fossil fuels. Our food is shipped in and our waste is returned by ship to South Africa, South America or New Zealand.
“When we venture further afield for research and set up a temporary camp, a portable generator is flown in with us, along with our snowmobiles.”
The Princess Elisabeth Research Station. Photo on 3e.eu
In fascinating detail, Winter sets out just how the Hubert’s research centre is different.
Solar panels are mounted high above the ground, away from the snow, to capture “the 24 hours of daylight during the austral summer.”
Instead of relying on concrete, wind turbines are drilled into the granite ridge beneath the snow and ice and are treated with “polar lubricants.” They can be turned off if there’s an intense snowstorm. These forms of renewable energy help melt snow for water and power everything that uses electricity in the building.
Winter also says that as there’s nine layers of insulation and cladding, there’s no need for heating. Electricity is carefully doled out, first to doctors and safety procedures, then for food and water, then for research, and finally for showering and laundry. Visitors are used to showering once or twice a week, limiting their water usage with push-button showers.
Even the snowmobiles are expected to go electric from January 2020.
The scientist goes on to write that when asked why he wanted to build a zero-emissions base in Antarctica, Alain Hubert said that “if we can do it here, we can show the world that it can be done anywhere.”
Winter’s final hope — one that can surely resonate with all of us — is that life and work with no carbon emissions “can become a reality for people everywhere.”
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Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber