Image: Wind turbines and Antarctic station
R. Robert  /  International Polar Foundation via AP
The Princess Elisabeth Station uses wind turbines, at right, and solar panels on its roof for its energy needs.
msnbc.com news services
updated 2/16/2009 12:45:21 PM ET 2009-02-16T17:45:21

The world's first zero-emission polar research station opened in Antarctica 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 skeptics 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 Sunday.

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 behavior. 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.

Water re-used
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 180 feet.

That would impact some 146 million people living in low-lying coastal regions less than three feet above current sea levels, researchers said.

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, vice-chair of the U.N. 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.

Research focus on ice shelves
The $26 million base, which is run by the Belgian-based International Polar Foundation, sits on stilts on a ridge a few miles north of the Soer Rondane Mountains. It will focus on analyzing nearby deep ice shelves.

The station's roof is covered by solar panels, designed to provide the bulk of energy needed to run the isolated post.

The base is expected to have a lifespan of 25 years and will conduct research in climatology, glaciology and microbiology. Teams of scientists, including glaciologists, are already at work there from Belgium, Japan, France, Britain and the United States.

Maaike Van Cauwenbergh, from the Belgian Science Policy Office, said the base is in an isolated area "where there has been little research done." It is located in a vast 600-mile zone between the Russian and Japanese research stations.

The Belgian government partially funds the public-private project.

The prefabricated station took two years to move from Belgium to the South Pole, where it was rebuilt.

View the inside of the station at http://www.antarcticstation.org/flash/virtual/

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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