Koen Meirlaen - © IPF

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Koen Meirlaen: Teacher in Antarctica!

A geography teacher at the Leiepoort Sint-Hendrik School in Deinze and winner of the Polar Quest contest the IPF organized during the 2010-2011 academic year, Koen Meirlaen is currently at PEA to do some work for the AHA! project he and his students devised.

I imagine the students at your school were very excited as you were preparing to go to Antarctica…

We were very excited to win the Polar Quest contest the IPF organized during the last school year. So my students had known for a while that I would be going.

However in the last month or so, as I was preparing to leave, my students were particularly excited! They were very curious to know more about what was going to happen and asking a lot of questions. And they were telling all their friends and family that their teacher was going to Antarctica. The whole school was getting involved in the project in one way or another!

Were there any preparations you needed to do before leaving?

I was spending a lot of time promoting our AHA! Project  as much as possible. We had some great activities, like the kick-off event. We also gave a number of lectures at a number of schools and at cultural centres. Aside form the students, there are a lot of students’ parents who are following what we’re doing. And then their parents tell their colleagues at work, and other family members.

We thought it was very important to inform as many people as possible before we left so that they could follow what we’re doing here in Antarctica. I think we did a good job. A lot of people are following our activities! We’ve also got a website and a blog, and we’re using social media such as Facebook and Twitter, so it’s very easy to get the latest updates.

Are you staying in regular contact with your students in Belgium?

In our school there is a room set up where they have Skype set up so we can chat. What’s nice is that I’ve been able to stay in touch with some of my students via their individual Skype accounts to discuss the AHA! project. Even students who graduated from the school two years ago are involved in the project, and I stay in touch with them regularly.

Could you describe the educational activities you’re working on with the scientists at the station?

Our main purpose is to make the research the scientists are doing here accessible to the students so they can have a greater appreciation of polar science.

Right now there are some German geologists here, and they’re looking at the geological history of the region. Parts of southern Africa and Antarctica were once joined here! I have to explain their research to my students, so I go into the field with them and collect different types of rock samples. I’ll take these samples back to Belgium and use them to talk about the research the geologists are doing in my classes.

Then in February, there will be three scientists who will be working on three different research projects will be coming. First is Alexander Mangold from the Royal Meteorological Institute, who is doing meteorological research under the BELATMOS project. My students have already given a presentation on his research for the AHA! project, so now they’ll be able to see what’s happening in the field! Also coming are Elie Verleyen from the University of Ghent, who will be investigating microbiodiversity in Antarctica, and Dennis Lombardi, from the Royal Observatory of Belgium, who will be doing seismological studies.

Are you discussing how the Princess Elisabeth station works with your students?

I’m planning to discuss the zero emission aspects of the station, as well as the water treatment system. I’m currently working out a good way to present it. It’s not easy to describe such a complex system in a simple way!

Will you continue to do outreach activities even after you come back to Belgium?

We’ll try and get as much information as possible out of my trip here. Even after I’ve come home, we’ll still work with the movies and other education and outreach materials we make using information collected on this trip in the years to come for the AHA! project. I just have to make sure I collect enough information while I’m here to accomplish our objectives.

We have some nice activities planned, which you can see on the AHA! Website. It includes a climate change debate and a challenge for young people to decrease their ecological footprint. We’re going to have a really interesting semester when we get back!

Did you have any expectations about Antarctica before you left?

Before arriving here, I had no concrete expectations. I was wondering what was going to happen and what I was going to see. I’d seen many movies and documentaries about Antarctica before coming. It always seemed like such a remote place, and I never expected that one day I would be here!

How was your journey to Antarctica?

We were delayed one week in Cape Town due to bad weather. There was a blizzard at the Russian Novolazarevskaya Station where we would land in Antarctica.

It was a bit surreal to go from Cape Town to Antarctica. In Cape Town it’s very warm, and I even got sunburned while I was there! And then a few days later I had to go to the coldest place on Earth!

What were some of your first impressions when you arrived?

After we landed at Novolazarevskaya Station at 5:00 am – the coldest time of day there – I put on my protective polar gear and went outside. It was shockingly cold! It was very different from the weather in Cape Town, and it took time to get used to the cold.

We were at Novo for a few hours before we flew to the Princess Elisabeth Station in a much smaller plane. When we arrived at PEA, it was nice and sunny, and the entire BELARE team came out and welcomed us warmly. It was a really nice start to my time in Antarctica!

How are you finding daily life at the station?

It’s very busy here! Everyone is working all day, including me. After breakfast, we start working at 8:00 am. At 1:00 pm we have lunch, and in the evening, dinner is at 9:00 pm. So the average day is quite long! But that’s ok. The spirit of teamwork is high here, so we get a lot done.

We work 6 days a week, and we have Sunday off. We often have excursions on Sundays, which are really nice. This past Sunday, we climbed a mountain only 7-8 km from the station, where you have a nice view of the station. And the week before we were driving to the coast in the Prinoth tractors to pick up the cargo from the Mary Arctica – which wasn’t really a day off, but it was a nice experience nonetheless.

What kind of tasks do you help out with at the station?

Whenever possible, I go out into the field with the scientists. But I can’t go with them when they take the helicopter because there’s not enough room. So when I stay here, I have to do chores, like shoveling snow or cleaning the station. Everybody has to work here! Otherwise, things don’t get done.

 How was it spending the Holidays in Antarctica?

We have 24 hours of sunlight here right now, which is a strange atmosphere in which to celebrate Christmas. Back home, on Christmas, it’s very cold and dark outside, and you spend it indoors and with your family. But here, the sun never sets. But we did have a wonderful atmosphere: there was a Christmas tree, there was nice food, and I spent it in good company!

And on New Year’s Eve, we had to constantly look at the clock to see what time it was to know when midnight came. With 24-hour daylight here, you can’t really tell when one day ends and the next one begins…

Has it been difficult to alter your habits to get used to living with the energy management system at PEA?

It was not very difficult to get used to. If you want to get electricity at an outlet, you push a button and ask the system if there is enough energy available. Right now, there is enough energy, so it’s not really a problem. But it makes everyone aware that they need to shut off a light in a room when they leave it. Having this kind of system makes you a lot more conscious of the energy you use! 

What has impressed you the most about the station?

Conditions are very extreme here, and I’m wondering how they managed to build the station. It must have been a huge task to organize the construction and logistics. But it goes to show that if you really want to do something, you can get it done! It’s really impressive!

Author: Joseph Cheek

Picture: Koen Meirlaen - © IPF

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