Ways to reduce the footprint of polar research | Polarjournal
French research icebreakerAstrolabe was launched in 2017 and ensures, among other things, the supply of French bases in Antarctica. Image: Cécile Pozzo di Borgo

Reducing the carbon footprint of Antarctic research could be achieved by reducing the speed of ships and international cooperation on logistics. Jérôme Chappellaz, former director of the French Polar Institute, suggests ways to improve environmental protection on the occasion of the release of a report on environmental impacts produced by the European Polar Council.

On May 10, the European Polar Board – an independent European organization that has been bringing together researchers and operators since 1995 – published a summary report on limiting the environmental impact of research in the polar regions. C02 emissions are at the heart of many issues and contrarily to common belief, polar stations are not responsible for the major part of emissions, but rather supply ships, research or transport planes, according to Jérôme Chappellaz, co-author of the report, glaciologist and former director of the French Polar Institute (IPEV).

Research stations need energy and this energy need is more difficult to make improvements for it could risk the safety of personnel. Renewables in winter are an issue as there is no light for the solar panels and the wind can stop. “Concordia uses 250 m3 of fuel oil per year for 3,000 m2 of buildings. There are 65 people in the summer and 13 in the winter,” he says. But there are ways: The Belgian Princess Elisabeth Station, a model base for developing carbon-free science, is only open in summer and accommodates a maximum of 20 people. In winter time, it is run remotely from Belgium. If the solar and wind power supply is cut off, the system is connected to a diesel generator.

The Princess Elisabeth Station is located on Queen Maud Land at an altitude of 1,400 meters, 180 kilometers from the coast and 1,500 kilometers from both a Japanese station and a Russian base. Image: René Robert / International Polar Foundation

Thus, Jérôme Chappellaz suggests improvements such as reducing the speed of vessels and creating a common platform for current logistics to be shared in an efficient manner. “In 2019, a pre-covid reference year, I requested the calculation of the French Polar Institute’s carbon footprint. The largest part of the emissions came from transportation, especially the ships, 60% of which are the Astrolabe, which supplies the Antarctic bases. It consumes 25 m3 of fuel oil per day and makes five round trips to Australia per campaign,” explains the expert.

As a result, he requested that the icebreaker’s crossing speed be reduced by 2 knots to save 10 m3 of fuel oil per day, without success. The French Navy prefers to slalom between storms to protect its equipment, much to the annoyance of the French Polar Institute, which pays for the fuel and keeps track of these emissions. “This single measure could cut the emissions caused by logistics in Antarctica by almost 40%”, he adds.

More cooperation and exchange

Another way to reduce the burning of fossil fuels would be to ensure that every trip is optimized. “Last April, I was on an oceanographic campaign with the Norwegian icebreaker, and there were 15 scientists on board – but we could hold 35 people,” he recalls. To avoid this situation, there are already systems in place. Around the Antarctic Peninsula, Spain and some countries like Poland exchange services in terms of personnel or cargo. “They reached agreement on the unit value of these services aboard a ship, plane or helicopter,” the researcher explains.

And France also knows how to do this. The French Polar Institute and the Australian Antarctic Division frequently exchange a tour by theAstrolabe to Macquarie Island for seats on planes between Australia and Antarctica. According to Jérôme Chappellaz, this principle should be generalized to the entire white continent and extended to the Arctic.

Another way of accessing research areas is through the passenger ships of tourist companies. Image : Ponant

“The polar (research) community would have to improve the way they do science before they criticize tour operators,” he adds. The use of tourist vessels by scientists is controversial. “Tourism is not prohibited by the Polar Code, nor by the Antarctic Treaty. Consequently, it would be double pollution if scientists avoided going on board and deployed another ship to work in the area in parallel”, the researcher notes pragmatically.

However, he says there are limits to this approach: “Tourism companies should not interfere with scientific decisions, nor should they use them for marketing purposes, nor should they use them to gain privileged access to sensitive areas.”

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Read the report Elshout, P., Chappellaz, J., Gibéryen, T., Hansen, C., Jania, J., Jones-Williams, K., Nolan, J., Reverdy, B., Topp-Jørgensen, E., Yılmaz, A., Badhe, R., 2023. Synthesis Report on the Environmental Impacts of Polar Research and Logistics in the Polar Regions. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7907235

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