Birgit Fremault (FEB) - © International Polar Foundation

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Interview: Birgit Fremault (FEB)

The International Polar Foundation is publishing a series of four interviews with some of the guests having attended the Princess Elisabeth Station's inauguration in Antarctica mid-February. How was it to see the building for the first time in its surroundings? What was it like to live in Antarctica for a few days? The fourth person to answer our questions is Birgit Fremault, Energy & Environment Adviser for the Federation of Enterprises in Belgium (FEB).

You were different from the other VIPs attending the inauguration. How so?

I didn't represent one of the station's sponsors like most of the other VIPs. I work for the FEB, and Thomas Leysen of Umicore, who is also the current FEB President, invited me to go with him to Antarctica as I'm working in eco-business and innovation.

But I also had the honour of being the first pregnant woman to visit the Princess Elisabeth Station. Originally it had been decided that it wouldn't be a good idea for me to go, but in the end solutions were found and I was able to go, which made me really happy. Everyone took great care of me.

Did you have any concerns about the comfort level given your condition?

It was more comfortable than I'd expected. I thought that we would be more like camping, eating basic food and not being able to wash ourselves. But in fact it was very comfortable at Utsteinen. We had all the comforts of home - nice, warm water and good food - much different from what I‘d expected

Being pregnant I was concerned about the flight to Antarctica and how it would be landing on ice, but there was really no difference between landing on ice and landing on a regular runway. In fact the flight was quite comfortable. In fact the most impressive moment for me was arriving at Utsteinen. It was really an overwhelming moment. The landscape there is so pure and bright. You can really see far. It's something that I will always remember!

How did you find the schedule of events during the trip?

I have a friend living in Cape Town who was able to show me around, and I saw a lot of nice things. The reception at the Belgian ambassador's residence was nice. Under normal circumstances as a Belgian citizen you would never have the chance to visit an ambassador's residence, so it was a very unique experience for me.

The programme at Utsteinen was more active than I thought it would be. I really appreciated being able to go on the excursions they proposed on the skidoos and climbing the mountain. It was different from what I expected.

What are your thoughts on the new Belgian station?

The station itself was overwhelming. It's on this ridge you can see when you're coming in on the plane. It's really impressive, especially the outside design, the structure, how it's built on the ridge and integrated into its surroundings. I had the chance to speak to the people who worked on the station. It was interesting to hear what they had to say and how they had lived there for the past few months and how the station was constructed.

I've read about the King Baudoin Station and other Belgian Antarctic expeditions, and I had the chance to talk to the researchers who were staying there, and I think this station is built to be successful and it's impressive that Belgian researchers and Belgian companies were able to build this unique station. I think it's a great example of energy-efficient construction that can be used in Belgium, Europe, and elsewhere. On the political level we're not always proud to be Belgian, but I think this station is really a reason to be proud of our country. We're just a small country but we've built the first "zero emission" research station. All the contributions of these Belgian companies has been really impressive. I hope we can be the best in the world in the research we will do there.

The initial results from the research carried out at the station were interesting and impressive, especially the discovery of hardy new microorganisms living near Utsteinen. These microorganisms can stand up to the extreme temperatures and high levels of UV radiation in Antarctica, which could have important implications in the industrial sector, for cleaning things at a very low temperature for example, taking advantage of their UV resistance in the painting industry. Research conducted at the Princess Elisabeth Station could be important for the development of sustainable, environmentally-friendly products in the future.

Author: IPF

Picture: Birgit Fremault (FEB) - © International Polar Foundation

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