Polar Tent Survives Antarctic Test

A tent made from experimental eco-materials, including rugs manufactured from recycled plastic bottles and an outer skin made from yacht sails, continues to stand in one of the most inhospitable climates on Earth almost five years after it was first assembled.

The Polar Lodge sits on an exposed, rocky outcrop in the shadow of the Collins Glacier on King George Island, Antarctica. Remarkably, it has survived largely unscathed despite the unforgiving environment.

Last month, the team who erected the tent as part of the Polar Lodge Project, revisited the shelter to assess the durability of the environmentally friendly materials used in its construction, which includes space blankets and solar lighting.

Among them was Heriot-Watt’s Emeritus Professor, Sue Roaf, an architectural engineer, who took inspiration from the timber structure of a Mongolian yurt when designing the temporary shelter.

Professor Roaf said: “We were amazed to find the tent had withstood the extreme winds of the exposed site for all this time.”

Initially, the tent was expected to stand in Antarctica for 12 months allowing researchers to study its potential as a temporary and mobile emergency shelter, easily constructed in areas of extreme cold and without impacting the environment.

Impressed by its performance, the team decided to leave the tent in place to provide a more detailed look at its effectiveness.

Professor Roaf said the project had since led to many valuable insights that can now be adopted into building projects in less exposed environments to help mitigate against the impacts of extreme weather events around the world. 

She explains: “In the extreme cold of Antarctica our assumptions about how buildings work thermally, are often wrong.

“Which direction should we face the door into? Away from the wind?  Wrong answer. That is where the snow accumulates.

“Much of what matters in terms of thermal performance is invisible. By monitoring temperatures and using thermal imaging cameras we could actually see the strong thermal stratification of air indoors and found that a major cause of cooling indoors is the cold carried by people from the outside.

“Using advanced wind simulation programmes we could optimise the structure location on the site and appreciate the importance of the protective stone wall facing the prevailing wind.” 

The Polar Lodge had withstood winds of up to 200km/hr and sub-zero temperatures until the external Dyneema cover was ripped away during a fierce storm in late 2023.

Working with Professor Manuel Correia Guedes of the Technical University of Lisbon, Professor Roaf recently returned from Antarctica having overseen its repair with a heavier and more durable material, called polyethersulfone or PES for short.

Professor Roaf explains: “We had set out to build a portable, temporary shelter for climate change researchers in Antarctica and were really pleased to be able to repair it so effectively with the help of the Portuguese ProPolar team who co-funded the expedition and the logistics support of INACH, the Chilean Antarctic organisation who hosted us.  

“The tent may well survive for another ten years now and we were touched that researchers from other bases went out of their way to tell us how useful and pleasant is to stay in our Polar Lodge overnight, and to have it there as a safe refuge in case of emergencies.”

Professors Roaf and Guedes will discuss the project further when they Chair a session on the performance and impacts of Antarctic Buildings at the 2024 Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) conference in Pucon, Chile in August.

The Polar Lodge Project has provided them with a basis for a wider exploration of how to design resilient buildings in Antarctica and anyone interested in designing  for extreme cold is invited to submit an abstract to their Session 49 via the SCAR 2024 website. 

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