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How scientists stay fed and happy in one of the most remote places on Earth


Chef Thomas Duconseille accomplishes the feat of feeding East Antarctic researchers and keeping morale up.

(CNN) --

No place on Earth is colder than East Antarctica.

Due to its higher altitude, even West Antarctica cannot come close to its hostile temperatures.

Princess Elisabeth, a polar research station in the Queen Maud Land region, faces winds of up to 249km/h and temperatures as low as -50°C.

Chefs working in this environment understandably need a knack for comfort food.

"I like to make something nice and heavy on the body, like fondue and raclette. Lots of it," says Duconseille.

Credit: Courtesy of the International Polar Foundation

"Since people are out in extremely cold temperatures and harsh conditions, I like to make something nice and heavy on the body, like fondue and raclette. And lots of it," says chef Thomas Duconseille, who works at this remote Antarctic outpost for several months of the year.

When there's a group of cold scientists around 5,000 km from the nearest city and at least 9,900 km from home, it makes sense that warm cheese would be a big help.

If only the rest of Duconseille's culinary tasks were as simple: cooking in these conditions poses unique challenges.

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Seven seasons in Antarctica

Princess Elisabeth is anchored on the ridge next to the Utsteinen Nunatak, a mountain known as "the outer stone", in the Sør Rondane range.

Outside Duconseille's office window stretch mountains of icy granite and brilliant-white lowlands dotted with ground accommodation units, laboratory containers and wind turbines sprouting from the snow.

During the summer months, from November to February, the glacial and mountainous landscape is bathed in constant light: the sun sets behind the ridge for only three hours a day.

During this time, researchers from Belgium, France, Germany, Turkey, India, and the United States use the surrounding 124 kilometers of mountains, coastline, glaciers, and the Antarctic Plateau to conduct scientific research and develop strategies to deal with climate change.

Some stay a few weeks and others may stay the whole season.

Duconseille, the Princess Elisabeth's resident chef, is there the full four months.

This year is her seventh season in Antarctica.


Chef Thomas Duconseille works at the Princess Elisabeth Antarctic Research Station for several months of the year.

Credit: Courtesy of the International Polar Foundation

Operated by the Brussels-based International Polar Foundation, Princess Elisabeth has been in service since early 2009, making it one of the newest polar research stations.

Despite its youth, it is the world's first zero-emission polar research station, relying entirely on renewable energy in one of the world's harshest environments.

It is also an amazing to look at.

Resting atop the ridge, the station looks like a recently landed hexagonal spacecraft, its sleek silver panels reflecting the brilliant whites of the polar landscape.

It's hard to believe that a brioche bun is baking inside.

"We make our own bread and cook it here. Fresh bread is important. I like to make brioche for breakfast with chocolate inside," says Duconseille.

Good bread is as important to a Frenchman at his post in Antarctica as it is in Normandy or the Alps, where he spends most of the year serving another class of explorers on Mont Blanc.

As Princess Elisabeth Station is a six-hour flight from the nearest city, Cape Town, South Africa, Duconseille ensures that meat, fish and vegetables are frozen to last the season and that eggs are Store in five liter boxes with the white and yolk separated.

As for fresh ingredients, a batch of these prized produce is flown in from Cape Town every month, provided the weather isn't too inclement.

Containers full of non-perishable items and monthly deliveries via DC-3 aircraft supply the station with food.

Courtesy of the International Polar Foundation

The challenges of fresh food in a remote outpost

Despite its altitude (1,200 meters above sea level), the Princess Elisabeth station is kept comfortably warm and protected from the elements thanks to a robust combination of wool felt, strong kraft paper, aluminium, wood paneling, polystyrene, waterproofing membrane, polyethylene foam and stainless steel.

Inside, the station is kept comfortably warm by a robust combination of wool felt, heavy-duty Kraft paper, aluminum, wood paneling, polystyrene, waterproofing membrane, polyethylene foam, and stainless steel.

Credit: Courtesy of the International Polar Foundation

"During the summer months, we don't need to use heating inside the station, because all the radiation from the sun, and our own presence inside the station, is enough to maintain an internal temperature of 20-21°C", says Henri Robert , Science Liaison Officer at Princess Elisabeth Station.

Using a hybrid system of nine wind turbines and 408 photovoltaic solar panels, the energy of 100 days of uninterrupted sunshine and fierce gusts of wind is harnessed to power the station.

Station crew members conduct scientific research and develop strategies to deal with climate change.

Credit: Courtesy of the International Polar Foundation

"Currently we have sun all day, as we are below the Arctic Circle. Luckily, we have a mountain to the south, so the sun goes down and gives us a bit of shade for a couple of hours, then comes back out. But it never goes below the horizon," explains Robert, a native of Belgium.

The station is the world's first zero-emission polar research station, relying exclusively on renewable energy in one of the world's harshest environments.

Credit: Courtesy of the International Polar Foundation

To reach the station, the crew flies from Cape Town in a DC-3 aircraft, an aircraft well-suited for transporting cargo and maneuvering on icy runways.

The flight takes just over six hours and then there is a 90-minute journey from the airstrip to the station.

The DC-3 also transports fresh food, such as vegetables and milk, and this operation is repeated every month (weather permitting).

It's a system that can scare those who rely on a last-minute purchase of a handful of fresh herbs or a glass of cream, but Duconseille has adapted to the rigors of the job.

"I'm getting more and more used to waiting a month between deliveries of fresh food. Years ago when I started working, it was difficult because fresh food goes bad fast. With experience, I know what goes bad first, so the first "This week we have a lot of fresh salads. I manage to make these ingredients last as long as possible. Throughout these four weeks, I manage, and until the fourth I can still offer something delicious to eat," says Duconseille.

Sustenance and food storage

The meals that Duconseille prepares at the station are varied: soups, meats, pizzas, salads, quiches and desserts.

"There is always a vegetarian or vegan option, so everyone can choose," says Duconseille.

For special occasions, such as Christmas and New Year, the chef prepares dishes such as foie gras, stuffed turkey and frozen nougat.

"As a consumer, I can tell that it's like being in a restaurant. It's wonderful: it's a complete dinner," says Robert.

The station usually has between 20 and 30 crew members at a time, but over the years the facilities have expanded to accommodate between 45 and 50 people.

Crew members alternate helping Duconseille in the kitchen by setting the table, drying and storing dishes, or peeling large quantities of potatoes.

Livelihood is a group effort.

Given the isolation of the station and the fluctuating number of crew members, it is important to maintain a stock of basic food items from one season to the next.

Transporting durable, non-perishable products to the station, such as cereals, legumes and canned tomatoes, is a different task from monthly fresh food deliveries.

Some supplies arrive in containers from Belgium.

Credit: Courtesy of the International Polar Foundation

"From Belgium we fill containers with a large amount of dry and frozen food, and every two years a ship arrives that supplies us with these ingredients," explains Duconseille.

At the station, food is stored on the ground floor, where there is a large room with shelving for dry food, a shipping container-sized freezer, and a smaller refrigerator.

"In fact, we have refrigerators that we have to raise the temperature to because many ingredients, such as certain fruits, cannot be frozen," explains Duconseille.

Duconseille doesn't plan meals in advance, but she does keep a solid inventory of food, so she knows exactly what's available.

The precious nature of fresh ingredients means that the position requires adaptability and creativity.

"I cook according to what I feel like, depending on how many people there are or what is going to go bad soon. It all depends on what we have," says Duconseille.

Because there is a wide variety of polar landscapes to study in East Antarctica, scientists from Princess Elisabeth go on regular excursions.

The chef plays a vital role in the success of these expeditions.

"These excursions can last between two and three weeks and involve between four and six people. To do this, I have to calculate the meals they will need out of season. Whenever I prepare a large meal, I freeze portions so that the researchers can take them away, thaw them and enjoy them, without losing valuable time in the field," explains Duconseille.

Station crew members conduct scientific research and develop strategies to deal with climate change.

Courtesy of the International Polar Foundation

"I have always been attracted to atypical landscapes"

Over the past decade, Duconseille has been director of several mountain refuges in the French Alps, including the Goûter du Mont Blanc refuge, the highest guarded refuge in France.

"I have always been attracted to atypical landscapes, beautiful areas, places at altitude. It is a small world, that of the people who do this work in these regions, so another cook told the station manager about me. Work in one place it can open new doors, and that's how I went from the Alps to Antarctica," says Duconseille.

Outside of the Antarctic summer, he continues his work in the French Alps, providing food, lodging and assistance to people trekking one of the five routes up Mont Blanc, which rises to 4,807 metres.

The crew of the Princess Elisabeth works six days a week.

Depending on the conditions, Sunday is fun day.

The team has free time to accompany the field guides and visit the neighboring nunataks, the mountain ridges that emerge from the ice like the bony plates on the back of a stegosaurus.

Conditions at Princesa Isabel station can be brutal.

Credit: International Polar Foundation

"I like to walk in the mountains with the rest of the group, and I'm also a runner, so I like to go for a run on the almost 2 km airstrip. But usually, on Sunday I read, take a nap and prepare for the next week," says Duconseille.

Some team members like cross-country skiing.

Others go further and practice alpine skiing on the big slope.

Of course, there are no lifts, so what you go down you have to go up, if you want to do a second round.

Robert, a biologist and bird watcher, seizes the opportunity of having such rare access to the White Continent.

"We have 200 kilometers of ice before we reach the coast. There is beautiful wildlife throughout this area, colonies of birds that nest right here, so we are not totally alone. It is always exciting to come here because I love birds. When I have Occasionally, I go to the nunatak and watch the birds that nest there, or rest on Sunday. It all depends on the weather," says Robert.

Food and morality go hand in hand

Every month (weather permitting) fresh food, including vegetables and milk, arrives on a DC-3.

Credit: Courtesy of the International Polar Foundation

Duconseille's experience running isolated mountain refuges has prepared him for the part of the job that goes beyond providing a livelihood: creating a home away from home.

With subglacial lakes, katabatic winds, and a 300-mile-wide crater rumored to be hidden beneath the eastern ice sheet, Antarctica is more than just the world's most isolated continent—it can feel like another planet entirely.

Although the station is comfortable and well-equipped (Robert describes it as "very nice... like a chalet in Switzerland"), the extreme isolation, unpredictable polar weather, and months away from home and loved ones can be exhausting. to the most intrepid

"In Antarctica, food is important for team morale - it's important to make sure people are happy around the table and coming together after a long day. I like to cook desserts and cakes so people are happy when end of the day," says Duconseille.

"In Antarctica, food is important for team morale: it's important to make sure people are happy around the table and coming together after a long day," says Duconseille.

Courtesy of the International Polar Foundation

If the chef spends his time bringing joy to the crew in the form of golden brioche and melted cheese, what brings joy to him?

"The first days, when I leave my family, it is hard. But once you arrive, you find yourself in this environment where you are focused on work and captivated by the beautiful surroundings. Life is exciting, something is always happening. We we deal with a lot of people and scientific activities".

Leaving Antarctica again is bittersweet.

"At the end of the summer, we are happy to go home, but it is a mixed feeling: we are sad to leave Antarctica," says Duconseille.

"It's an incredible environment and a unique life that we have here."

Source: cnnespanol

All news articles on 2023-02-07

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