Belgium has just opened the Princess Elisabeth Station in Antarctica. It’s the first ever zero-emission base on the continent. Not only is it powered by wind and solar energy, but it also recycles its waste products.
But how did the Belgians end up in Antarctica in the first place? Apparently, I don’t have to look much further then my own hometown, Hasselt.
It’s quite possible that there are more statues present in the inner city of Hasselt then people actually living here. The most famous statue known here is that of Hendrik and Katrien. They spend most of their time sitting together in the main square. Though there are many more worth mentioning, it’s something for a later post. But I mention this, because many years ago, I was asked to create a design for the website for the city of Hasselt. At one point, the tourist cell gave me photo’s of some of these statues I could use in my designs. I knew all of them except for one. At first I thought it was an homage to some prominent military figure. But when I dared to ask who he was, I got surprised looks. How could I not know who he was? It was Adrien De Gerlache of course! He was one of the most famous inhabitants of our town. I was still clueless.
It turned out that he organized the first purely scientific expedition to Antarctica in 1898 while commanding the ship the Belgica. What was known of Antarctica up until then, had only been explored by mostly whale and seal hunters who were only interested in the region for economic gain. De Gerlache on the other hand managed to gather together a remarkable team of international experts and scientists; the most notable crewmember being the Norwegian Roald Amundsen. He would eventually become the most famous polar explorer of all time. After his adventures in the Belgica and the experience he gained there, he would later return to Antarctica to become the first man to ever reach the actual South Pole.
Although it’s not known if it was De Gerlaches intention all along (some suspect it was), but the Belgica did manage to get itself stranded in the Antarctic ice. As a result, it would become the first expedition ever to spend a whole winter in the Antarctic south. And despite the pressures and harsh conditions they were subjected too, they meticulously continued doing scientific studies during all these dark months. Isolated from the rest of the world and cramped in closed quarters, it was thanks to the efforts of Frederick Cook, the onboard doctor, that many of the crew survived and kept their sanity.
The area of Antarctica that they surveyed back in the day is the same area where much of the growing Antarctic tourism industry is concentrated today. These mostly consist of cruises along the islands and coasts of the Antarctic peninsula. Trips usually last about ten days. The passangers sleep onboard the ships, but they do get to make landings up to twice a day on the islands, and where possible, on the continent itself. Of course, it is not without danger. Turns out we would be the last to ever sail to Antarctica with the expedition ship: the MS Explorer. On it’s return journey to Antarctica a few months later, it hit an iceberg and sank. Everyone was resqued but cruise ships do regularly get in trouble in this area.
Anyway. Belgium would later return to Antarctica in 1957 with their own polar station: The King Boudewijn Base. The mission was led by one of De Gerlache’s sons: Gaston De Gerlache. Unfortunately, the station had to be abandoned just after a few years of use. Because it was built on ice, that not only was slowly drifting out to sea, the heat produced by the base made the ice underneath it melt. As a result, it sank deeper and deeper away. Add to that the layers of new snow that was piling up on top of the base, and it was in real danger of eventually being crushed. It was however thanks to this mission that Belgium became one of the twelve founding members of the Antarctic Treaty. In simple terms, the treaty states that Antarctica belongs to no nation and must be used for peaceful purposes and for the good of mankind. And that any scientific knowledge gained here must freely be exchanged with its member states.
How did the Antarctic Treaty come to be? The members at the time couldn’t come to a settlement as to how to divide the southernmost continent amongst themselves. But because no nation actually had the technology to mine any of the possible resources under the immensely thick layers of ice, they decided to resolve this prickly problem at a later date. And so a fifty year moratorium was initiated and the Antarctic Treaty was born. The moratorium however ends in 2011 at which point the treaty may be changed. With the recent race to clame underwater regions in the North Pole area, it remains to be seen how this will all unfold. But with a bit of luck, Antarctica will remain a protected region.
In the mean time and with the lessons learnt from their previous adventure, the Belgians have returned half a century later with a new base: The Princess Elisabeth polar station. This time, it was built on solid rock much deeper inland in Uststeinen. Because Antarctica is plagued by regular snowstorms, the new station has been aerodynamically designed to prevent snow from heaping up against or over it. In other words, it shouldn’t drift out to sea, sink in the ice or get covered by snow like did the last one. In doing so, it should last at least 25 years after which it will be broken down to be brought back to Belgium.
But they have also gone a step further then just protecting the base from its environment. One of the main goals was to keep the impact on its surroundings as low as possible. It’s basically a passive house that is so well insulated, it remains at a constant temperature of 18 to 20 degrees Celsius. And although there is a backup diesel generator, the station relies on solar panels and wind turbines for energy. This has the added advantage that transporting fuel like anything else to Antarctica is massively expensive. Waste is recycled as much as possible. While this wasn’t always the case, nowdays, its frowned upon to use Antarctica as a waste dump.
The station itself will of course be used for scientific studies and most likely to further measure the effects of global warming on our planet.
If I had the chance, I would return to Antarctica in heart beat. So just in case they should have a spare bed left open, I’m more than willing to fill it. Maybe even as a concierge keeping an eye on the place during the Antarctic winter months perhaps?