The Belgian explorer living and working in Antarctica

The Belgian explorer living and working in Antarctica
Alain Hubert, co-founder of the International Polar Foundation, which established and built the Belgian “Princess Elisabeth Station”.

Interview with Alain Hubert at the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station: “It would be a planetary disaster if the sea level would rise as a result of the melting of the ice in Antarctica”

It may come as a surprise to many that a small country like Belgium, far away from both the Arctic in the north and Antarctica in the south, is actively involved in polar research. In fact, Belgium has a history of expeditions to both poles, starting at the end of the 19th century. The flagship of the current Belgian polar involvement is the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station, a state of the art station, which monitors climate change.


Antarctica does not belong to any country - although some countries have territorial claims to this vast continent of 14 million km2 - and no passport is required to go there. The Belgian polar station was a private initiative from the start, established and built by the International Polar Foundation (IPF) as a legacy project of the 2007-2008 International Polar Year. Recently, the foundation has become entangled in a legal dispute with the Belgian government about the management of the station.


Alain Hubert (63), born in Schaerbeek in Brussels, is an entrepreneur, civil engineer, mountaineer and explorer, following in the footsteps of previous explorers who on their own decided to explore distant places under extreme conditions and to contribute to scientific research. Currently, the most burning research issue is climate change and its impact on the future of the world. If the ice in the Antarctic melts, the ocean level will rise with disastrous consequences for low-lying lands.


Alain, one of the co-founders of IPF, arrived with his team to the polar station last November. The Brussels Times managed to establish contact with Alain via satellite telephone. The station is located at an altitude of 1 382 meters and about 220 km from the coast, on the northeast side of Antarctica, with no other stations in the neighbourhood. The distance to the two nearest stations - Novolazarevskaya (Russia) and Syowa (Japan) is 450 km and 650 km respectively.


Up to 98 % of the continent is still covered by ice. But in contrast to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), the eastern side of the continent has been less affected by climate change and the melting of ice has only recently begun to be noticed. That makes the region ideal for scientific research and expeditions using the Belgian station as a base.

The Belgian station is only manned during the summer season, when it is light all the time. The rest of the year no-one is there, but the team has access to its computer system and manage the station with remote control via satellite.

With Alain’s record of mountaineering and previous expeditions to the Arctic, it is no wonder that he would also become interested in Antarctica. This was not a state-founded enterprise similar to those of the past when Belgium was looking for colonies on other continents. Alain explains that it all started when he and his colleague Dixie Dansercoer, another adventurous Belgian explorer, carried out an unassisted 4 000 km crossing of Antarctica in 1997-1998.


“I performed a number of scientific and educational activities, which laid the ground for what afterwards became IPF,” says Alain. “I felt that the impressive work of scientists in the Polar Regions was not getting the amount of attention that it deserved, especially in the context of climate change, when such efforts could supply extraordinary new insights into the dynamics of climate.” 


Belgium was one of the original 12 signatories to the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. Belgium also established a research station named after King Baudouin in 1958-59 but it closed down after a few years.


What was the main drive for a small country like Belgium to explore Antarctica?


Alain says that Belgium’s desire to build a station in Antarctica was only driven by science. 


“In 1957-58, the International Geophysical Year inspired a number of Belgian scientists and meteorologists to dream of building a station as other countries were doing. They approached Gaston de Gerlache, the son of the famous Adrien de Gerlache, a Belgian sea captain who, in 1897, followed the call of the Royal Geographical Society in London to explore Antarctica. He equipped a ship, called it the Belgica, and manned it with an international crew and a team of researchers.”


Adrien de Gerlache’s expedition was the first to overwinter in Antarctica after the ship was trapped in the ice and it would take the expedition 15 months until it could return to Belgium. “My first expedition to Antarctica was a commemoration of the centenary of this event,” says Alain.


After the King Baudouin station was closed down in the 1960's, Belgium, though being a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty, did not have any station in Antarctica. In 1985, the government set up a scientific polar programme but still without any station.


“That’s where I came into the picture in 2004 and proposed to the government to set up a station. A station in Antarctica is important for one major reason. Antarctica plays an important role for the balance of the climate on earth. It would be a planetary disaster if the sea level would rise as a result of the melting of the ice in Antarctica.”


Today there are 53 parties to the Antarctic Treaty operating more than 80 stations. The Treaty aims to promote scientific research but 7 countries have pending territorial claims covering three fourths of Antarctica, which is rich in minerals, fossil fuels and other valuable resources, both on the continent itself and in the surrounding seas. These countries are: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom.


Researchers on a visit to the polar station, travelling by snowmobile around its vicinity. 

The US and Russia, although they are maintaining a “basis of claim”, do not recognize the claims of the other countries. “Occupying and claiming land that does not belong to anyone (terra nullius in legal jargon) is a relic of past colonialism,” says Alain. “Furthermore, the Antarctic Treaty is very formal on this point and states that no activities undertaken during the period when the Treaty is in force shall in any way assert, support or deny territorial claims or create any new rights.”


Alain does not believe that it would be profitable to extract the resources in Antarctica. The operating costs are so high that any business project would probably not be financially viable, at least for the time being. He also refers to The Protocol on Environmental Protection of 1998 that extended the Antarctic Treaty to cover the protection of the environment by banning mineral resource extraction in the Antarctic area. 


The Madrid Protocol, as it is known because the Protocol was signed in Madrid, will expire in 2048. This will effectively open the door to a new race for land and resource wealth, warns Alain, unless the Treaty term will be extended. Some countries have already claimed the continental shelf around the Antarctic in preparation for the expiry date of the Treaty.


Antarctica has a glacial climate with average temperatures of minus 40 to minus 80 degrees Celsius in the winter season and minus 10 to minus 40 degrees Celsius in the summer season (November – March).


What does it take to live and work in Antarctica under such extreme weather conditions? How many people normally stay in the station during the winter season?


“The usual average occupation of the station during the season is about 20 persons, including researchers and station crew. Some years we have been more, e.g. pilots and scientists from other stations. If necessary, we can accommodate up to 48 people. This is no place for tourists and we have no facilities for tourism,” replies Alain.


According to Alain, few scientists stay in the stations in Antarctica during the winter season. The Belgian station is only manned during the summer season, when it is light all the time. “The rest of the year no-one is there, but we have access to its computer system and manage the station with remote control via satellite.“


He continues: “Living and working at the station during the summer season is not at all a hardship. It’s relatively warm and comfortable, and you can take showers and eat hot meals, which after a day working in the field is a great bonus. Taking into consideration that the team always seems to be in good spirits, I would say that life at the station is quite enjoyable. It is of course another story when carrying out field work for weeks on the plateau at temperatures of -35°C with 20-40 knots of strong winds.”


The Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station is the first "Zero emission" polar research station with windturbines, solar panels & satellite dish. The closest neighbouring structures is a Russian station located 450 km away and a Japanese station 650 km away. Credit: International Polar Foundation - René Robert 

In November last year, news media reported that Danish and American researchers were alarmed by “extraordinarily hot” Arctic temperatures on the other side of the planet. “It’s been about 20 degrees warmer than normal over most of the Arctic Ocean, along with cold anomalies of about the same magnitude over north-central Asia. This is unprecedented for November,” one researcher said in an interview.


In the Arctic, sea ice, which forms and melts each year, has declined by more than 30% in the past 25 years, according to researchers. They are convinced that the reason for the high temperatures and ice loss is climate change. What is the situation in Antarctica, known for its huge icebergs, which break away from the mainland shelf ice and float out to sea?


Do we have any figures on the melting of ice in Antarctica?


Apparently the situation in Antarctica is not as worrying as in the Arctic. “Antarctica is still covered by ice and the floating ice shelves are still there,” says Alain. “The big question today is what would happen if the land ice would melt at a faster rate than the accumulation of snow and ice on the continent. If there is more ice lost to the ocean, sea levels would rise significantly.”


Much scientific research activity is dedicated to calculating the so-called Surface Mass Balance in Antarctica and finding the correct answer to the question “Is Antarctica melting?” Some parts are melting and ice shelves are breaking off (or calving, as it is called) but the net result is still not entirely agreed upon, Alain explains. Satellite data and ground observations will allow researchers and modellers to agree on the final figures. 


“Our part of East Antarctica, which is different from the Western part, still remains a ´grey zone´ because there is very little data available for this region. This is why the research here is so important. We are making progress, but it could take years to find the final answers to this crucial question.”


The Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station functions both as a research centre and logistic hub for field expeditions. The station provides facilities for researchers to install their instruments, to carry out activities in the laboratories and, last but not the least, to allow them to go in the field and obtain the data and samples that they need for their research. It also provides technical and logistical support for field expeditions in a radius of 500 km around the station, lasting for up to 6 weeks.


Perhaps the most complicated question has been left to the end of the interview. After building the polar station with private means, IPF donated the station to the Belgian state in March 2010.


Why? Is it something you regret today in view of the legal dispute with the government?


“The intention was to donate the station to the Belgian Federal State in return for an agreement to fund the operations at the station,” replies Alain. “This type of scientific research is not profitable since it does not produce inventions or products that can be commercialized. Basically it is a public service that should engage public bodies and foundations, as is the case in other countries.”


“Through a donation linked to an agreement which preserved the role of the IPF, we also wanted the Belgian people to feel involved in the research being done in Antarctica. But seeing how the donation opened the way for the Belgian public administration to direct unfounded allegations against IPF and to obstruct our work, it’s unlikely that we would have adopted the same naïve strategy today.”


The polar station was donated to the Belgian state under a Partnership Protocol, governed by a set of conditions, enshrined in law, which were implemented by an Executive Order laying down the rules for the functioning of a new body, the Polar Secretariat, which would oversee the funds for managing the station. This was to be a collaborative partnership between the private and public sectors, in the service of Belgian scientific research in Antarctica.


However, for some reason unknown to The Brussels Times, the new arrangement was not accepted by the Belgian science policy office and the department in the government in charge of science policy. This resulted in several court rulings by the Council of State, the supreme administrative court in Belgium, all in IPF’s favour. But the rulings have not been respected by the government. The Secretary of State concerned is regularly questioned in the Belgian parliament about the dispute, but the government as a whole is apparently not intervening.


Following the latest court ruling, IPF fears that the government will continue to disregard the court’s decisions and continue to breach earlier agreements on the management of the polar station. For more than three years, the IPF has been calling for an independent audit of its accounts regarding the management of the station.


Alain feels frustrated and disappointed with his own country. “It is shocking for ordinary citizens to realize that their representatives are allowed to disregard the law with impunity. We were given a permit for this season’s activities by the Belgian Ministry for the Environment. We are here at the station as its sole operator, recognized by the courts.” 


“The failure of the state to respect the terms of the donation has led to its de facto revocation.”


“No-one here really understands why a legal dispute has been blown out of all proportions and become politicized,” concludes Alain. “We are in the middle of a dispute we haven’t chosen. We are willing to continue to enthusiastically support Belgian and international scientists, but the Belgian government leaves us no other option than to seek partnerships with other stakeholders that are more interested in scientific research than in politics.”

By Mose Apelblat

Climate changes in the Polar Regions

The European Environment Agency writes in a recent report on climate change and its impacts in Europe that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are important in the global climate system.

The report confirms that the cumulative ice mass loss has been much bigger in Greenland than in Antarctica in recent years. However, the uncertainties around the ice discharge from Antarctica, and the associated projected sea rise level, are larger than for Greenland.

By 2100, the rise of the global sea level will be clearly influenced by the development of the Antarctic ice sheet. If global warming exceeds 1.5 – 2 degrees C, which already seems to be happening, the major Antarctic ice shelves would collapse in the long term and this could result in a faster and greater rise in the sea level, underlining the need for urgent mitigation measures.

Source: Climate change, impacts and vulnerability in Europe 2016 – An indicator-based report (European Environment Agency, released 25 January 2017)

Fully zero-emissions polar station with plenty of research

Alain is proud of the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station that he was instrumental in establishing in 2009. The station is unique as it is the first and, until now, only zero-emissions station in the world, using wind and solar energy and built in an energy-efficient way.

“Other countries are looking to us to learn how to reduce their emissions, which they are supposed to do according to the environmental protocol.”

The polar station used existing technologies for the production and management of the energy through a smart grid. “However, it’s the way in which the production and use of energy is managed which is revolutionary,” says Alain.

“These techniques are available to all but need to be downsized for domestic users and up-scaled for industry,” he adds. 

Asked about which current scientific projects that he would you like to highlight, Alain mentioned the following projects, funded by various sources:

“There are a lot of different activities, including a new geomagnetic observatory which was built by the Geophysical Center at Dourbes in south Belgium, an affiliate of the Royal Meteorological Institute in Uccle, Brussels. It will house a revolutionary new instrument developed by Prof. Jean Rasson and his colleagues,” says Alain.

“There are also several automatic weather stations belonging to the Zurich Research institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape. Scientists from the Snow and Avalanche Research Institute in Davos have installed observatories for studying the behavior of snow and ice in this region. This work will feed into the surface mass balance calculations.”

The Belgian Baillet Latour Fund, a non-profit organization founded by the late Count Alfred de Baillet Latour, supported a project that looked at the interactions between the ice shelves and the ocean. Another project currently financed by the Baillet Latour Fund studies the unique microbiology of the area. The Fund is also awarding fellowships to young scientists.


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