BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium is building the first ever zero-emission polar station in the Antarctic, powered by solar panels and wind turbines and designed to have minimal impact on the climate change its scientists are studying.
All waste from the Princess Elisabeth station, housing up to 20 researchers, will be recycled. Fossil fuel will only be used for back-up systems.
“Polar stations really have an impact on the environment because most of them run on fossil fuels. There is a huge cost to buy the fuel, a huge cost to transport the fuel and a huge impact on the environment,” said Maaike Vancauwenberghe, head of the research program.
Currently on display in Brussels, the station will be transported later this year to a ridge in the Dronning Maud Land, East Antarctica, where temperatures drop to minus 50 degrees Celsius (-58 F) and winds reach up to 250 kph (155 mph).
Belgian scientists first sailed out to the Antarctic on the ship Belgica more than a century ago, the world’s first expedition there during the southern hemisphere winter.
But while renowned for research, including a recent excursion to measure snow thickness in the Arctic, they have not had their own station since 1967, when their existing site became engulfed in snow and unsafe.
The station, named after the king’s granddaughter and with an interior of 700 square meters (7,500 square feet), should be operational for at least 25 years.
With a stainless steel shell, a 40-centimetre (16-inch) layer of polystyrene charged with graphite and sandwiched between wood panels, the walls will be well insulated against the cold. Heat from computers will help keep the inside habitable.
Project manager Johan Berte said he had high hopes that the station would be used as a prototype by other nations.
“I hope and I really believe it will have a big influence on future stations in the Antarctic,” he said.
Britain and Germany also have plans to rebuild their stations during International Polar Year, which extends over two years from March 2007 to March 2009, when scientific effort on the continent will accelerate.
Project leaders also hope the station will serve as a model for construction elsewhere.
“If we can do that there in Antarctica in extreme conditions then we can do that in Europe and all countries,” said Belgian polar explorer Alain Hubert who will travel to the station at the end of the year.
The cost so far for building the station is 10 million euros ($13.6 million). The Belgian government, which commissioned the project, will contribute 2 million euros per year to the research project, starting in 2009.
Scientists at the station will be examining glaciers to see how they are affected by climate change.
“Antarctica has an important role in the global system. The ice masses are keepers of a huge volume of fresh water and if they melt we could see sea levels rising 5 or 6 meters, which would be catastrophic,” said Vancauwenberghe.
Aerosol particles that influence the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth’s surface are also part of the study.
Once these projects are underway, the researchers will expand their activities to the coastline inhabited by penguins and sea lions to see what impact climate change is having on their feeding and breeding patterns.
“We need more answers to our questions about global warming,” said Hubert. “The earth is not in danger. It is our species that is in danger.”