Tag Archives: antarctica

EVs land in Antarctica

e-ride Industries' EXV2s. Image from NREL, photo by Dennis Schroeder.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has announced that McMurdo Station received two electric vehicles to help test whether the research station can move away from a dependence on diesel trucks. If the vehicles can handle the tough conditions at the remote station, they’ll help offset current fossil fuel use and pollution.

Transporting vehicle fuel to Antarctica is expensive, resource intensive, and requires a lot of planning, while both wind and solar (at least, for half the year) are plentiful on the ice. Moreover, McMurdo Station is considered a pristine research environment and anything that can be done to reduce pollution without jeopardizing operations would be helpful. Therefore, the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs is working with NREL and the Department of Energy to incorporate more renewable energy and efficiency practices into current facilities.

As part of that effort, NREL researched and tested e-ride Industries’ EXV2 electric utility vehicle. The units were chosen because the truck-like bed and larger utility-style tires more closely resembled the pick-up trucks currently being used. NREL subjected the vehicles to sub-zero temperatures and, after being assured they functioned as expected, outfitted them with insulation and battery heaters and sent them by boat and transport plane to McMurdo.

e-ride Industries' EXV2 lands on the ice in February 2011. Image from NREL, courtesy of Kent Colby with Raytheon Polar Services.

Since landing on the ice in February, the vehicles have been used on a daily basis, logging more than 70 hours and nearly 140 miles. The real test lies ahead, during Antarctica’s bad weather months. The vehicles will then be subjected to brutally cold conditions. “Empirical data on the capability of the vehicle batteries in such cold is critical,” NREL Senior Task Leader Ted Sears said. “As a result, we are trying to learn everything we can about how the vehicle systems operate and respond in the extreme cold. Despite the vehicles being equipped with battery warming devices, there are still going to be limitations on their capabilities.”

McMurdo isn’t the only facility looking at whether renewables can reduce fuel use. Remote locations the world over would benefit from similar vehicles. Currently these places have to ship fuel in at great cost.

Read more about the project on NREL’s website.

Below the Antarctic circle

Icebergs in the Antarctic Strait (Margot, Jan 2011)


Antarctica in January 2011 was as breathtaking as I had imagined to be. Surreal landscapes of strangely sculpted icebergs drifting in seas, surrounded by snow covered mountains. Absolutely beautiful. And scary. The Antarctic peninsula is experiencing a frightening level of warming. The average temperature in this Western part of the continent has risen more than four times as fast as the average global temperature. Evidence can readily be found. Spectacular ice shelf break ups, like that of Larsen B, leave massive chunks of ice floating, and melting, in the coastal waters around Antarctica. Where the coastal ice shelf disappears, glacier flows are no longer held back and long tongues of land ice find their way towards the sea.

Iceberg in the South Atlantic, courtesy of my friend Story Musgrave (astronaut)

Why do these ice sheets break up? It is not because of weakening or melting of the ice sheet upper surface. West Antarctica is a collection of islands. They are covered by thick layers of land ice and in many places connected by ice shelves that stretch across the water. In many places, prevailing winds push relatively warm surface water to the ice shelves. Where this water touches the ice, the shelves thin. Eventually they develops cracks, weaken and breaks up.

As temperatures around the Antarctic Peninsula increase further, the combined effect of ice shelf break up and increased glacial flow towards the coastal region may contribute significantly to global sea level rise. How much? This is hard to predict, but the crew and the scientists aboard our ship have over the years seen dramatic changes in ice coverage.

Right now, the one creature that seems most affected by the change in the local temperature is the Adelie penguin, one of my favorite creatures. They don’t do very well in higher temperatures and are gradually being displaced by Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. It may not seem all that important at the moment. The Adelies can move further South, and they are. But there is much more at stake. Sea level rise is one concern, but so is a change in carbon dioxide absorption by the Southern Sea, thought to be critical in global climate behavior, because of changing ice coverage. We do not know yet how much the ecosystem as a whole will be affected. But I would be surprised if it remained relatively unscathed with this strong and fast West Antarctic warming.

Someone who knows a lot about ice melt and changing glacial ice coverage is photographer James Balog. James started the Extreme Ice Survey. EIS is making the world’s most extensive ground-based photographic glacier study. Time-lapse video and photography reveal the ongoing retreat of glaciers and ice sheets due to temperature changes. EIS has installed 38 time-lapse cameras at 22 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Nepal, Alaska, and the Rocky Mountains and conducts annual repeat photography in Iceland, British Columbia, the Alps, and Bolivia. We were very lucky to have James on board with us.

The journey to Antarctica was amazing. So was the wake-up call.