A Friendly Visit
“Princess Elisabeth Station – the first and, currently, only “zero emission” research facility in Antarctica” – by Ian Prickett
On Saturday evening we were fortunate enough to be invited to the Belgians Research centre for dinner.
Due to a rather long day prior to this and not enough distance gained due to poor snow conditions, we had contacted the Belgian team earlier in the day to let them know we were running late and probably wouldn’t make it as far as them for the evenings meet. So we sat down to our plate of gruel, sorry, I mean boil in the bag Beef Goulash, and chewed the fat over the days events. Suddenly Brian mentions, “Theres somebody at the door!” Now theres a sentence we won’t be hearing very often during this trip thats for sure.
It was the legendary Belgian adventurer Alain Hubert, who’s brainchild during his Antarctic man haul trip many years ago, has brought about this stunning station named Princess Elisabeth. He had a fleet of skidoos parked outside and with the words, “would you like to come for dinner with us?” we all dropped our gruel through the floor, kitted up and abandoned our home for the night.
A 6KM skidoo run later, with us all whooping away behind the drivers, we arrived at the foot of this stunning research facility. From a distance the base is very reminiscent of something you may see in a James Bond movie, the baddies evil lair, or even something from Thunderbirds. From our position 6 km away, the base looked as if it was an aluminium structure built above the ridge line that it is situated on, with the constant flashing of the suns rays hitting the wind generators.
As soon as we arrived around the back of the base you could see it was so much more. There are 10 huge wind turbines stretched out along the ridge, along with a bank of solar panels which keep the station operational. The entrance is approximately 10 meters below the station itself, with boot rooms, a games area and workshops. There is also a huge garage area for the upkeep and repair of the vast array of vehicles they have to keep the station running.
Up the 3 flights of stairs, past the banks of computers keeping the station online, we were welcomed into the communal area with a glass of champagne along with canapés to munch on. This was closely followed by salmon fillet, potatoes and fresh vegetables, along with a can of beer to wash the awesome food down!
Over dinner I sat opposite Alain and began to ask about the station. Having spent the last 5 years helping to build the British Antarctic Surveys new flagship facility, Halley 6, I was very intrigued to find out how their station was built.
It has a steel base frame which has been fixed onto concrete plynths which have been cut into the ridge line. They then used large wooden beams, reminiscent of an alpine hut, to create the superstructure, before adding several different shaped wall modules. These consisted of 9 layers of aluminium, wood, woollen felt, insulation layers and finished off with kraft paper. With these wall panels finished and watertight, they actually manage to heat the building with minimal energy loss and once the building is up to temperature they don’t actually need to put heat in at all!
The most remarkable aspect of this station is its ability to be completely self sufficient energy wise, using wind turbines and solar power, both photovoltaic (for electricity) and solar thermal (heating water) throughout the Austral summer. They also use an intelligent control system so that all the power required inside is activated by physically requesting it. If you want electricity, you need to request it. This stops the unnecessary waste of electricity running in the background when it isn’t being used.
The water treatment system recycles every last drop and they use technology developed by the space sector to ensure that grey and black water, once treated, is fit for human consumption.
At the moment this station is a summer only station and a lot of the guys are on the countdown for flights home as the season will be ending in 2 weeks. When the station is shut down for winter the heating and controls transfer to a computer bank in Belgium. This carries on keeping the station at an optimum temperature, so as not to freeze or damage any equipment. Alain did tell me of his hope at one day being able to winter here yet for the time being the station is more than adequate at looking after itself!
One thing is for sure, all at Princess Elisabeth Station, along with the Belgian Government and the partners involved in creating her, can be truly proud to be leading the world with this zero emission station. One of the key scientific studies for most people in Antarctica is Global Warming and if we are to help with this in any way then the example of Alain and his compatriots must be followed.
It was a real treat and a pleasure to be hosted here, yet now we are back to the mission at hand.
We are at the foot of the mountain pass which will bring us up and onto the plateau. There are big hills, blue ice, crevasses and windy paths ahead, yet we need to pull 120 tonnes of equipment approx. 100km through these areas, carry on as far as we can after this to depot the fuel, then return to the start to do it all again in Winter.
As I write we have come to a grinding halt due to our first patch of Blue Ice. All hands go outside to assist in fitting the CATs “crampons”, small spikes which protrude above the tracks to dig into the ice and create more traction. We are ferrying up the glacier and our travelling time is greatly increased. Its one way to run in a shiny new CAT.
You can follow the exploits of the Belgian and international teams working at Princess Elisabeth by following the links below.