When you are a polar explorer, you have a different set of reference points for good weather and bad. As we prepare to start recording our Skype chat with Alain Hubert from Antarctica, we make small talk, and the Belgian casually tells me that where he is, it’s the end of summer: “It’s not that cold, the average is about -20C, plus the wind.”
Minus 20 degree centigrade in the summer? “Oh yes,” he smiles. “The station is really in the middle of a microclimate, and in the middle of December sometimes we get -10C, so without wind, in the sun, it’s nice.”
Hubert has enough experience of the poles to feel more than at home in -20C. For the past 25 years he has been travelling to the coldest parts of the globe as an explorer, guide, and most recently as the director of Belgium’s Princess Elisabeth Station, in the mountains of the east Antarctic.
Now, at the end of a ‘summer’ season at 1,400 metres above sea level in the most remote part of the planet, he spoke to Euronews about climate change and the life of an explorer.
Firstly, he stresses that where he is, climate change doesn’t mean watching the ice melt beneath his feet. It means quite the opposite.
“Mostly when we talk about climate change in Antarctica we talk about the western peninsula, which has the same problem as we have in the Alps in Europe, or in the Andes, with the melting of the ice,” Hubert says. “But East Antarctica is a place where you get more accumulation at the moment”
While the North Polar Region, or the western Antarctic ice shelf record a loss of ice, the east Antarctic is actually gaining about 20 to 30 centimetres of ice cover per year.
The reason is climate change, as Hubert explains: “It’s normal, you have more heat, you get more evaporation in the ocean, more rain or snow falling,”
The Princess Elisabeth station is made for research, and built where it is in order to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of this far-flung part of the world. At the centre, scientists work on as diverse a range of topics as glaciology, geomorphology, atmospheric science, meteorites, seismology and gravimetry.
But the station also represents in itself a test bed for a sustainable future, with an intended lifespan of at least a century.
Due to its remote location, and the green energy objectives of its founders, the spaceship-like building uses as much renewable energy as possible, with wind turbines and solar panels for power, alongside conventional generators if they fail. The site also recycles water, “just like on the International Space Station,” says Hubert.
What’s more, electricity usage at Princess Elisabeth is shared out according to need. “The funny thing is that the whole station is managed by a computer,” says Hubert. “The computer measures the current everywhere in the station, but doesn’t allow you to use the energy wherever you want and whenever you want.”
“You have to take into account the availability of energy. If you need to recharge your computer for example, you have to request to the computer ‘May I use the energy at this place for half an hour?’ for example. If it’s available, and it’s available according to the priorities that you give to the computer – to give the energy to the kitchen, or scientists, or whatever – it will say ok.”
“But if something else is more pressing, you have to learn to be patient, and wait an hour or two before it’s your turn again,” says Hubert.
Hubert believes there are lessons here for the wider world, about changing the way we think about our energy use.
“The problem in our society in Europe, it’s us. We have to change, and that’s the most complicated thing in a society, we have not been educated to do that,” Hubert underlines.
Like all polar explorers, Hubert is concerned about climate change, and has witnessed its effects in person.
Making reference to the adventure of Fridtjof Nansen in 1893, in which he fixed his ship, the Fram, into the sea ice in the hope of drifting with the current to the North Pole, Hubert says that Nansen “measured a thickness of more than 10 metres of deep ice.”
“In 1992 during one of our crossings of the Arctic, we never measured more than 2.5 metres of thickness. That’s for sure, there is less and less ice in the Arctic in the spring. But every winter the cold arctic night will continue to refreeze the ocean to maintain at least a cold ice-cover on the north. With the Antarctic continent at the opposite side, they are the only cold source of our climate keeping this fragile equilibrium allowing human species to live on this planet.” Hubert says. “Climate change is not a linear phenomenon but it’s happening now and the poles are the first witnesses to monitoring this change.”
The Belgian is a true outdoor adventurer, and now frequently shares that passion for the coldest places on Earth by leading groups into the Arctic.
What are the messages that he tries to transmit to those who travel with him? Most importantly, a healthy respect for nature: “You are nothing in the middle of nowhere, you have to be conscious of that.”
“You need to be able to focus on your objective, and you have to be able to learn from your mistakes.”
And what advice for the budding Arctic explorer, what’s the one object that Hubert recommends you always take with you? The answer is a little surprising: “A brush, if you go into polar exploration you need a brush, because you have to be able to manage and clean your clothes and your equipment without any heating.”