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Surviving the ‘Survival Night’ in Antarctica!

Abu Dhabi-UAE: 11 April, 2012 – From the desert sands of the UAE, Reem Al Junaibi and Maitha Al Kaabi packed their bags and travelled across half the world to reach the frozen Southern continent of Antarctica. But once they came, they were completely conquered by the sheer abundance of natural splendor.

“A life-changing experience,” admits Reem Al Junaibi. “I am a totally different person now,” declares Maitha Al Kaabi.

For, the expedition to Antarctica has evoked such powerful emotions transforming both, making them realize the need to adopt sustainable lifestyles. But what is more, it has also given them the mandate to ensure every person on the planet is made to realize that it is in the general interest of the community to remain sustainable.

Maitha Al Kaabi and Reem Al Junaibi bear testimony to the extent of student commitment one can witness at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, an independent, research-driven graduate-level university focused on advanced energy and sustainable technologies. Their voyage was also part of the Young Future Energy Leaders (YFEL) program, a Masdar Institute outreach initiative.

Both were part of polar explorer Sir Robert Swan’s International Antarctic Expedition (IAE) 2012 team that completed its 16-day voyage to Antarctica. They returned to the UAE on 16 March after the expedition that began from Ushuaia in Argentina on 27 February, where the team returned on 12 March after visiting several places including the ‘E-Base 2041’ on the Antarctic continent.

From where they began their voyage in Ushuaia, with the hike up the Martial Glacier to learn teamwork, through the dreaded Drake Passage with more than 10-meter high waves, to the shore excursions and short landings on the Zodiacs in the Antarctic, the entire journey proved immeasurably exciting and rewarding at the same time.

The two had 11 shore excursions (eight landings and three cruises) on the Zodiac inflatable rubber boats from 3 March – one in the morning and another after lunch. They also had to spend one ‘survival night’ outdoor, after building a one-meter high wall of snow for protection from the elements of nature. But when the dawn came, it took them almost 10 minutes to break down the wall of snow, pack their sleeping bags and run to the Zodiacs.

Reem says: “The sleeping bags had a thermal layer that kept our bodies warm, or at least they were supposed to. I filled my sleeping bag with up to eight ‘hand warmers’ to trick my way into camping in Antarctica. Didn’t work, it was still too cold. At night, it rained a bit and I could hear the rain drops on my sleeping bag. But eventually, we did it. We survived the survival night!”

Many may have travelled to the Antarctic for different reasons but the two Masdar Institute students had one objective – research.

Says Reem Al Junaibi: “Antarctica has a unique weather condition such as ‘katabatic’ winds – ‘down-slope’ high-density winds that rapidly blow cold air. These winds can make generating wind energy in Antarctica quite challenging as they may cause the turbines to break or cause the system to be unstable and unpredictable.

“Therefore, to have better management of variable energy sources, or renewable energy, we need better management of information that is closer to real-time and also have a better understanding of the unique weather conditions in any given place provided for energy generation.”

Maitha on the other hand had different kind of experience. She says: “Though, I could not see the process of temperature induced salt precipitation in Antarctica, it was a great opportunity to work with CEO of companies and others who work in the area of my interest – how to preserve water resources in the UAE.

“The UAE is a desert with more than 85% of its fresh water coming from desalination. In my thesis with Dr. Raed Hashaikeh of Materials Science and Engineering program, we have developed cellulose to use as alternative solution for energy and chemicals that we get from outside the UAE.”

But the two never strayed from their objectives. “The weather was difficult and challenging but did not stop me and Maitha from performing our duty. Our mission was to learn about climate change and take every opportunity we have during the expedition by constantly being engaged. It was physically and mentally challenging, but not impossible,” says Reem.

The two also traversed the Cuerville Island where they experienced an ‘outdoor classroom’, Neko Harbor – the first place to visit on the continent where they could see the whales and magnificent glaciers, Paradise Harbor – where a TEDx event was organized, and the Lemaire Channel – where they watched humpback whales.

Though they have had somewhat similar experiences, they do differ on what they consider the single most precious moment during the entire expedition to Antarctica.

Says Al Kaabi: “It was what I saw from atop the hill on Neko Harbor. The most incredible and beautiful picture of nature. I forgot myself in that moment. To my right was the ice-covered mountain and farther to my left was the huge iceberg. And in the middle, I could see the sea.”

Says Al Junaibi: “The first time I went on a Zodiac and saw the humpback whale. It was the first time I have ever seen a whale and icebergs that close. I couldn’t sleep that day because of the excitement.”

But both remain firm on one thing. Given an opportunity, both are ready to go on their second Antarctic expedition – all over again – not for adventure, but to further emphasize why the world community needs to adopt a sustainability lifestyle.

Established as an ongoing collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Masdar Institute integrates theory and practice to incubate a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, working to develop the critical thinkers and leaders of tomorrow. With its world-class faculty and top-tier students, the Institute is committed to finding solutions to the challenges of clean energy and climate change through education and research.

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