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Wind powers Antarctica's first zero-emissions research station

Antarctica’s newly inaugurated Princess Elisabeth Station is the white continent's first research facility that doesn't emit any greenhouse gases, according to the Belgium-based International Polar Foundation that designed and constructed it. The research center, open to scientists from around the globe, is located about 120 miles (200 kilometers) from the coast in Eastern Antarctica, due directly south of Africa’s southern tip. The station will draw power from wind turbines (eight for now, and nine next year) and solar panel arrays rather than from the diesel generators that power most other stations.

The 30 foot- (nine meter-) tall wind turbines are “spinning as we speak,” says Mark Connolly, a spokesperson for Proven Energy, the Scottish firm that built and supplied the tripled-bladed machines. The turbines will operate in average wind speeds of 53 miles (85 kilometers) per hour, producing what may be the highest known electrical output for such a relatively small wind power system, Proven Energy says.

Although a press release from the company characterized these turbines as the first to dare the Antarctic’s extremes, the Australian Antarctic Division has had a pair of wind turbines at its Mawson Station since 2003. The government organization’s website shows the turbines’ energy output in virtually real time. (As of this writing, however, the wind turbines are offline.) In gusty weather, the station relies on wind power for over 90 percent of its energy, with traditional diesel generators handling the rest (or all, for the moment).

“I think it’s important for scientists down there who are so focused on understanding how the climate is changing to really set an example,” says Robin Bell, a geophysicist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University about the switch to alt energy in Antarctica. (Bell authored ScientificAmerican.com’s 60 Seconds at the Bottom of the Earth, a series of blogs in which she chronicled a recent trip to the southernmost continent to study a mountain range hidden beneath ice sheets.)

In many ways, Earth’s polar regions represent the front lines in global warming: Just a few days ago, a giant ice bridge that supported an ice shelf collapsed. Scientists warn that rising temps may melt glaciers in Antarctica, Greenland and Canada, in effect raising sea levels by 3.3 feet (1 meter) by 2100. Low-lying landmasses, such as the Maldives island chain in the Indian Ocean and many coastal cites, would be annihilated.

Still, Antarctica may strike some as an unlikely place for green initiatives given the struggle just to maintain a human presence in such an inhospitable environment. Bone-dry and windswept, with subzero temperatures that have plunged to a world record -129 degrees Fahrenheit (-89 degrees Celsius), only a few thousand people – all researchers and support staff – live there at a time. (Antarctica supports no native populations, such as the Eskimos of the north, though penguins, of course, make do with the rough climes.) To allow for even this minimal human toehold, governments around the world have established over five-dozen research outposts since the 1950s, some just open for the summer when typical temperatures rise to a comparatively balmy freeze point (32 degrees F / zero degrees C).

[left, top] Turbines at Princess Elisabeth Station [right] face a stiff wind in Antarctica. Image Credits: International Polar Foundation (IPF); Alain Hubert, program director, founder and president.

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