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Belgian Polar Platform

History

Scientific research is the red wire through the history of the remarkable Belgian presence in the Antarctic.

Since Belgium had no maritime nor polar tradition at that time, the ‘Belgica’ expedition (1897-1899) of Adrien de Gerlache came as a complete surprise to the international observers. The young De Gerlache was supported and surrounded by a progressive environment of academics and researchers of upcoming scientific institutes and universities. The ‘Belgica’ expedition is internationally recognised as the first scientific Antarctic expedition, which moreover would realise the first overwintering in the Antarctic sea ice, opening the gate to the exploration of the Antarctic continent.

Sixty years later, at the occasion of the International Geophysical year, a new Belgian expedition under the leadership of G. de Gerlache, son of Adrien, set foot on the Antarctic continent (1957-1959). The team constructed the Belgian research station Roi Baudouin (70º26'S 024º18'E) at Prinsesse Ragnhild Kyst. During this IGY, of which the Secretariat was situated in Brussels, 64 countries measured and calculated the Earth, by the most modern means and this in the depths of the oceans as well as in space. In fact it was the first step forward in understanding the ‘System Earth. 12 countries established a network of 55 scientific stations, including the Roi Baudouin base, and registered for the first time in a systematic way the whole gamma of geophysical phenomena, contributing to our knowledge of surface weather and climate, and to our understanding of the upper atmosphere.

Thanks to this initiative Belgium was one of the twelve nations to negotiate and sign a unique international agreement, the Antarctic Treaty (Washington, 1959). Territorial claims were put aside and with the ban on military activities, Antarctica was declared a continent for ‘Peace and Science’. Remarkably this was realised at the peak of the ‘Cold war’.

Unfortunately the viability of the Roi Baudouin base was limited to two periods of three year (1958-1961; 1964-1966), in which 3 Belgian and 3 Belgo-Dutch expeditions were carried out at the Roi Baudouin base in a nearly uninterrupted way. These expeditions, using sea, land and air transport, were carried out during the summer seasons by teams of approximately twenty people, who from time to time and for short periods were joined by other scientists. In 1967 the Roi Baudouin base was closed for safety and budgetary reasons, buried under meters of snow.

After that Belgium still participated to a research programme with South-Africa, but the activities would slowly decrease until 1985, when the Belgian Federal Science Policy started up the first multi annual Antarctic science programme. At the political level, Belgium took active part in the development of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (1991).

50 years after the IGY, the international scientific community launched with the 4th International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2009 a new wave of scientific observations at the Poles. This time, environmental issues are central, with at the forefront climate change and its impacts and the role of the ice cap and the surrounding oceans, as well as studies on biodiversity loss and microbial life in extreme conditions. At the occasion of the IPY, Belgium commissioned the International Polar Foundation to construct the Princess Elisabeth Station, a sustainable and low carbon platform that is again included in the network of scientific observations and research.

Chronological overview (see also website The last continent)

1897-1899 First Belgica-expedition under the leadership of Adrien de Gerlache, over wintering in the Antarctic pack ice and collecting scientific data.
1957-1959 First Belgian expedition on the Antarctic continent under the leadership of Gaston de Gerlache, son of Adrien. Construction of the scientific station Roi Baudouin.
1959-1960 Second Belgian expedition to the Roi Baudouin base.
1960-1961 Third Belgian expedition under the leadership of Guido Derom; discovery of the Queen Fabiola mountains.
1963-1965 First Belgo-Dutch South Pole expedition; construction of a new Roi Baudouin base.
1964-1966 Second Belgo-Dutch South Pole expedition.
1965-1967 Third Belgo-Dutch South Pole expedition under the leadership of the Belgian geologist Tony Van Autenboer. Closure of the Roi Baudouin base.
1968-1970 Three summer expeditions in cooperation with South-Africa.
1985-now Start-up of the first multi annual Antarctic science programme by the Belgian Science Policy Office
2008-2009 Belgium constructs a new scientific summer station in Antarctica, at the occasion of the International Polar Year.

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