Photo of the E-base by John Luck
King George's Island, one of the northern-most points of Antarctica, was once a popular whaling and sealing base, but is now is home to small outposts of scientists from twelve countries. The Russian and Chilean stations, Bellingshausen and Eduardo Frei, sit only meters apart, forming one community. On the Chilean side, there's a school for the children of the families living there, while, on the Russian side, a small Orthodox church sits atop a hill, a tiny pine cabin in drifts of snow. A short walk beyond the church is the E-base, a research hut like all the others, except for the solar thermal tubes, photovoltaic cells, and wind turbine outside. The hut was repurposed by 2041 in 2008 to demonstrate that renewable energy technology is ready now, not "one day".
Photo by Eva Jacobus
In the Antarctic, people don't mess around with fuel or food. Outside assistance can be days, weeks, or months away, if it can reach you at all. Despite high local awareness of conservation issues, renewable energy is a tougher sell in the Antarctic than back home. It's not so much NIMBY as "What are the odds we'll lose body parts or lives?" (Yes, Virginia, it still happens. The world isn't that small yet.) When you demonstrate a technology in the Antarctic, it's high-stakes. After refitting the vacant research hut with solar cells, solar hot water, and a wind turbine, and turning it into perhaps the southernmost building to be furnished (sparsely) by Ikea, polar explorer Rob Swan lived there for two weeks, talking to students via video feed about the experience. He's not the only one in the Antarctic trying to make a point about renewable power. Australia has a wind-generated hydrogen-powered demonstration station at Mawson Station, and earlier this year, Belgium officially opened Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, their zero-emission wind and solar powered research station, which is currently the only Antarctic station powered entirely through renewables.
That's great for the future of low-impact human presence in the Antarctic, for sure. But what the E-base and these other projects would really like us to be asking is why we're not doing this back home if they can do it in the harshest and most unpredictable climate on Earth. With experts calling for per capita carbon emissions reductions of 20-40% by 2020 (and 80% by 2050), it's easy to see why running our homes on renewable energy matters. If they can make it work in Antarctica, it can work anywhere.