Science and technology


Climate change observatory for SA

13 December 2011

A unique climate change observatory, the first of its kind in the world, focusing on bringing scientific information from around the globe to the public, is to be built in Cape Town by the International Polar Foundation.

The announcement, first reported by the SABC on Friday, was made last week at a function attended by Prince Albert and Princess Charlene of Monaco, who were in Durban for the UN climate change summit (COP 17).

Prince Albert is a patron of the Belgium-based International Polar Foundation (IPF), a non-profit organisation established in 2002 with the aim of "providing a novel interface between science and society". The IPF's last major project, completed in 2009, was the construction of a new research station - the world's first zero-emission research station - in Antarctica.

Interface between science and society

Its next major project is the Polaris Climate Change Observatory, which will be built in the heart of Cape Town's famous V&A Waterfront, on a jetty that will be specially developed, the IPF says on its website, "to offer visitors of all ages a striking experience as a path to sustainability.

"Featuring permanent and temporary exhibitions, outreach and education activities, spectacular ways of presenting climate facts and figures, highlighting new science and innovations, the Polaris Climate Change Observatory will confirm Cape Town and South Africa as world landmarks for climate action."

According to the IPF, Cape Town is the perfect location for this "new breed of science centre", and not only because of the city's geographical location as a gateway to the Southern Pole.

Scheduled to open in 2014, the first Polaris Climate Change Observatory will bring together "the ingenuity of one of Africa's premier cities with a revolutionary concept which will change the way visitors understand the world, the changing climate and ways in which humanity can take responsibility and make decisions for the future".

South Africa 'open to addressing issues'

Interviewed by the SABC last week, IPF vice-president Nighat Amin said that in South Africa there was both a "real need" and a "deep willingness to address the problems which are apparent everywhere".

Whereas there were too many vested interests at work in other countries, Amin said, when the IPF approached South Africa and Cape Town with the idea of the observatory, "we encountered so many people who were willing to talk to us and support the project that it just took off".

The Polaris observatory, says the IPF, "will be like no other place in the world today, by taking the visitor through the origins of the Earth right up to present day in a bid to put climate change into perspective.

"There has been so much said and done on climate change. The multiplicity of science interactions and conflicting stories have muddied the waters of public understanding on what is happening to the Earth and climate today, and the near future perspectives.

"The Polaris will demystify the climate change debate and give visitors the broad vision and understanding they need to make decisions about their own future."

At the same time, the observatory will also serve as a reference centre for "all stakeholders ... to exchange knowledge and share initiatives related to mitigation and adaptation to global warming."

Giant floating tabular iceberg

The spectacular, 3 000 square metre observatory building - resembling a giant tabular iceberg floating on a large pool of water - will feature a permanent exhibition using two powerful symbols to represent climate change.

The first will be an Earth globe acting as the focal point around which visitors will revolve during their visit, and serving as a 3D screen for visualizing key concepts.

The second will be a "giant ice core, through the heart of which will run a transparent spiral staircase ... Ice cores are the repositories of Earth's climatic history, going back up to 800 000 years," the IPF says. "While descending the staircase, visitors will be presented with a summary of the various climatic periods."

The permament exhibition will be divided in eight "forums" through which visitors will "get to know Earth's climate system, and their personal relation to climate."

Complementing the permanent exhibition, the observatory will also feature a full educational programme for schools, "with dedicated workshops and temporary exhibitions spaces for various science, technology or sociology related solutions towards a low-carbon society".

SAinfo reporter

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