The changing face of exploration in relation to scientific endeavour in the 21st century

On how exploration of the polar regions can shed light on a new way forward for society in the face of growing environmental uncertainties.

Contrary to common belief, the big adventure associated with the planet’s discovery is not over. Of course, what is over is the exploration of the “terrae incognitae”, the blank areas on old maps, labelled “here be monsters”. Satellites have opened up the Earth to a scrutiny that is intimate, and intense. (Some monsters vanished, but maybe others appeared).

However, this view of the globe from space, far from signalling the end of adventure on unknown and unexplored shores, has in fact sharpened the curiosity of those who are inclined to seek the road less travelled, those who hunger after the new and the wondrous treasures of life on Earth from the most
remote to the most densely populated. Such a recent example was the discovery of a still unexplored forest in Mozambique, made possible through satellite imaging, which led to additional findings in biodiversity.

The new era of contemporary exploration has led the curious individual into an ever deepening and intimate embrace with the Earth, beyond the surface, beyond the apparent into an ever closer encounter with the workings of the planet. Hence, paradoxically maybe, going to the most remote inaccessible places on Earth is allowing us to refine our understanding of the way the rest of the system functions.

Crossing the Arctic Ocean in 2007 from Siberia to Greenland (a World first) allowed for the collection of full transect of ground truth observations of snow depth and ice conditions to feed into computer programs. Few people on Earth are capable of carrying out this dual feat. These algorithms will sharpen the focus of the Cryosat 2 satellite due for launch in 2009. This satellite will allow for vast expanses of ice to be scanned for thickness as well as extent, permitting a first real calculation of the loss of ice volumes in the Arctic and in the Antarctic. But not until the satellite is told what it is seeing will the images become meaningful. We have to “teach” machines to see, literally.

Today’s explorer has, as at the end of the 19th Century, become a man of science – the justification for going into places where only the foolhardy venture, has become a quest for intimate knowledge. Knowledge which it is impossible to obtain by any other means. Beginning to know the Earth at close quarters will allow us to understand the reality of climate change. Nothing else will suffice.

Today, the crucial role of the poles in regulating the heat balance of the Earth has shown how important it is for scientific literacy to be improved. Convinced that education plays an essential role in the struggle against climate change, the International Polar Foundation (IPF), which I founded in 2002, has set out to support the efforts of the international scientific community by encouraging polar research initiatives and by providing new tools for the dissemination of research findings. The IPF develops its projects following its three-fold mission of information, education and demonstration.

To follow on from promoting polar science the IPF also tries to leverage support for scientific activity. Within the context of the International Polar Year 2007-2008 and with a commission from the Belgian federal government, the International Polar Foundation set out to design, build and finance, through both private and public sponsorship, the first “zero emission” station in Antarctica.

The genius of this new structure lies in the truly innovative way in which known passive building technologies, high-tech electronic management controls, renewable energy sources and water treatment facilities have been seamlessly integrated into a unique scientific infrastructure. Unique in its design and construction, the Princess Elisabeth station takes us in the right direction with regard to the need for rethinking the future in the face of climate change. Being the first “zero emission” station in remote Antarctica, it also holds the potential of opening up new possibilities for future polar facilities.

The Princess Elisabeth station poses a major landmark in the field of sustainable development and shows that the climate challenge is not insurmountable where there is goodwill and collaboration between peoples, sectors and countries.
If this can be done in Antarctica, it can be done anywhere else in the world.

Alain Hubert
Explorer, civil engineer and Chairman of the Board of the
International Polar Foundation, Brussels, Belgium