First carbon-free polar station opens in Antarctica

PRINCESS ELISABETH BASE, Antarctica, Feb 15 (Reuters) - The world’s first zero-emission polar research station opened in Antarctica on Sunday and was welcomed by scientists as proof that alternative energy is viable even in the coldest regions.

Pioneers of Belgium’s Princess Elisabeth station in East Antarctica said if a station could rely on wind and solar power in Antarctica -- mostly a vast, icy emptiness -- it would undercut arguments by sceptics that green power is not reliable.

“If we can build such a station in Antarctica we can do that elsewhere in our society. We have the capacity, the technology, the knowledge to change our world,” Alain Hubert, the station’s project director, told Reuters at the inauguration ceremony.

Global warming, spurred by greenhouse gas emissions, has prompted governments to look for alternative energy sources. And renewable energies are gaining a foothold in Antarctica, despite problems in designing installations to survive bone-chilling cold and winter darkness.

Wind and even solar power are catching on -- solar panels on the Antarctic Peninsula can collect as much energy in a year as many places in Europe.

Thomas Leysen, chairman of Belgium’s Umicore, a leading manufacturer of catalysts for cars who attended the ceremony, said it made good business sense for companies to help protect the environment.

“The global credit crisis is a result of unsustainable behaviour. We can’t deal in an unsustainable way with our planet otherwise we will also face a crisis which will be even bigger than the credit crisis,” he said.

Constructed over two years, the steel-encased station uses micro-organisms and decomposition to enable scientists to re-use shower and toilet water up to five times before discarding it down a crevasse.

Wind turbines on the Utsteinen mountain ridge and solar panels on the bug-like, three-story building ensure the base has power and hot water. Even the geometry of windows help conserve energy.

Scientists monitoring global warming predict higher temperatures could hasten melting at Antarctica, the world’s largest repository of fresh water, raising sea levels and altering shorelines. If Antarctica ever melted, world sea levels would rise by about 57 metres.

This will have affect some 146 million people living in low-lying coastal regions less than one metre above current sea levels, researchers said.

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said failure to reduce emissions by 50 to 85 percent by the middle of this century could be catastrophic.

“Globally we will be in a temperature increase zone that the earth has not known for the past two to three million years,” he said. (editing by Elizabeth Piper)