A century after Amundsen: Antarctic with all mod cons

A century after Amundsen: Antarctic with all mod cons

23rd February 2009, Comments 0 comments

The new Belgian Princess Elisabeth scientific research centre on the frozen continent is a far cry from the conditions faced by the early pioneers.

A century after the heroic exploits of Amundsen and Scott, today's Antarctica comes complete with Internet access and regular meals made from fresh food for the modern-day scientific explorer

"Before it took at least eight days by boat, if you were lucky," just to reach the edge of Antarctica. These days you can fly in and out almost at will, said Vasily Kaliazin, whose Dromlan company has flown 350 people to the frozen continent during the southern summer which is coming to an end.

For those at the scientific centres on a continent bigger than Europe – mostly covered by an average 1.6 kilometres (nearly a mile) of ice – living conditions have also improved since the pioneering days when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen beat his British rival Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole in 1911.

Photo AFP

That is certainly the case at the new Belgian Princess Elisabeth scientific research centre which was officially opened on Sunday.

The new station, which resembles nothing more than a flying saucer on stilts, does not only include cutting edge technology but is the greenest structure on the white continent.

It is powered by the wind and sun and everything is recycled in the state-of-the-art, zero emissions station.

Inside visiting scientists, and journalists, have access to Internet connections, can get about on skidoos and receive regular fresh meals.

Japanese researcher Kazuyuki Shiraishi, a 60-year-old veteran of 14 Antarctic missions, has seen the science and technology evolves just as he has witnessed the continent itself changed.

"At the start we still used morse code" to communicate, recalled the geologist from Tokyo who emerged from a 16-month "hibernation" in the mid-1970s to discovered that the world was gripped by an oil crisis.

"Nature stays the same. When the weather gets bad you feel like Scott et Amundsen", the professor adds with a grin.

Back then, we didn't think much about the environment

The Antarctic is now an internationally recognised nature sanctuary where military activities and mineral exploitation are banned under the Antarctic Treaty which came into force in 1961.

Nevertheless it attracts more and more travellers, as well as scientists.

Photo AFP

Hugo Decleir, a veteran of the earlier King Baudouin Belgian base which was abandoned in 1967, returned for the opening of the new base, built near mount Utsteinen some 200 kilometres from the icy continent's eastern flank.

He found, besides a "nunatak" – the summit of a mountain emerging from the deep ice – a food parcel elft by Belgian geologists 40 years ago.

In the world's biggest natural fridge-freezer he found biscuits, chocolate and a ready-meal marked "can be eaten cold".

"Back then we didn't think too much about the environment," Decleir explained.

What also endures is the scientific interest in the South Pole, while the economic interest grows and grows.

Not everyone is happy with the latter.

Belgian Annick Wilmotte, a moss and lichen expert spending 17 days at Utsteinen, takes exception to the way the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries hope to make commercial gains from the scientific research.

Hundreds of metres from the Belgian base Cyrille D'Haese examines mites and other acarians rarely over a millimetre long on a piece of granite.

That's progress of the natural kind, he explains.

"Millions of years ago the Antarctic had a tropical climate. Have they stayed here adapting or were they brought here by birds? By studying their genes we should soon know," said the young biologist from the Natural History Museum in Paris.

Nearby, Steven Roberts of the British Antarctic Survey is concentrating on the ice, studying how that evolves.

"If we can understand that... we could perhaps anticipate the reaction to global warming. Because if the Antarctic ice cap melts water levels will rise by 70 metres (yards)," he warned.

That's the sort of change the Princess Elisabeth researchers hope to avoid.

Philippe Siuberski/AFP

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