An Icy Blast Of Scepticism
Climate scientist Chris Turney’s team of embedded global media and paying science-minded tourists has spent the festive season trapped in sea ice instead of exploring what melting ice caps mean for mankind. Sceptical bloggers across the world have had a field day with the irony of it all.
Grainy film footage from Douglas Mawson’s epic Antarctic survey and expedition provides lasting proof that when the adventurer’s team reached Commonwealth Bay exactly 100 years ago, it was free of sea ice.
It is a historical fact that some people argue can only add to acute embarrassment for Australian climate scientist Chris Turney, the carbon entrepreneur and head of climate science at the University of NSW, whose Antarctic mission has come to a frozen dead stop.
Turney’s team of embedded global media and paying science-minded tourists has spent the festive season trapped in sea ice instead of exploring what melting ice caps mean for mankind.
Rather than disappearing poles, for more than a week global attention has been focused on the fact that in recent years Antarctic ice has been growing, not shrinking as in the Arctic.
Turney is lamenting that he has become trapped in his own experiment.
Sceptical bloggers across the world have had a field day with the irony of it all.
And organisers of the boldly promoted The Spirit of Mawson: Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013-2014 have been busily discounting the climate-change link to the journey.
Spokesman Alvin Stone tells The Australian that the stranding of their vessel, Akademik Shokalskiy, has been misconstrued.
“One of the misconceptions is that this is a climate-change voyage full of climate scientists, which is actually not true,” he says.
“There are a couple of climate scientists on board, but it is just a scientific expedition and it is quite broad, with biologists, geographers, looking at penguin and seal populations and a whole lot of other things.
“The idea of the expedition was to do a very broad scientific expedition that mimicked what Mawson did, so we were taking the same measurements and extending on what he did as well.”
But as the public relations team back home was remaking the purpose of the journey, the ice-trapped Turney was arguing from the frozen Antarctic that climate change really did explain it all.
“We came to Antarctica to study how one of the biggest icebergs in the world has altered the system by trapping ice.
“We are now ourselves trapped by ice surrounding our ship,” he says.
“Sea ice is disappearing due to climate change, but here ice is building up,” according to a statement from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition.
Turney says the conditions are the result of the frequent and deep low pressure systems that encircle the continent. “In combination with a funnelling effect from the ice sheet, these lows are producing strong and pervasive winds from the southeast.
“The wind is not unusual but what is unexpected is the major reconfiguration of thick multi-year sea ice to the east of the Mertz Glacier,” he says.
In 2010, a large iceberg known as B09B calved from the continent and collided spectacularly with the extended tongue of the Mertz Glacier.
Turney says the knock-on effect was that Commonwealth Bay had filled with sea ice (termed “fast ice”), preventing direct access from the sea to Mawson’s main hut at Cape Denison. “Unfortunately for the Australasian Antarctic Expedition it appears the region has just undergone a massive reconfiguration of sea ice, years after the loss of the Mertz Glacier tongue,” according to Turney.
He says this may be the future long-term expansion of fast ice to the east of Commonwealth Bay.
“The thick chaotic surface we see around the MV Akademik Shokalskiy is consistent with the idea that this ice is several years old and is considerably more difficult to break through by icebreaker than single-year ice,” he says.
But the bottom line is, once again, nature has drifted from the script.
Turney’s view is undermined in part by the Australian head of the rescue mission that has so-far involved ships from China, France and Australia, and will end with a helicopter evacuation of passengers, but not crew, when the weather clears.
A helicopter rescue was planned for the 42 scientists, media and tourists but proved impossible on Tuesday and yesterday because of snow and strong winds.
The 22 crew members planned to stay on board until the ship could be freed.
According to postings from on board, frustrations were starting to build despite there being no immediate danger and plenty of supplies.
John Young, general manager of emergency response at the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, says the stranding can be neatly explained as a weather event.
“Commonwealth Bay, where the ship was conducting its operations for the expedition, is usually relatively free of ice but a prolonged period of wind from the southeast moved the ice floes around and it has packed up in the vicinity of the Shokalskiy,” he points out.
“That is how most ships get beset by ice.”
Young says it was a prevailing wind that caused the issue and it was a reverse of the prevailing wind that could solve it.
Contrary to Turney’s view that this is all old, thick ice, Young says the ice is of varying ages.
“In the pack is some a few years old, some one year old and some newer than that, with snow on top,” he says.
It is also a bit rich now for expedition organisers to say they did not have climate change in mind when the trip was conceived.
Promotional material says the expedition’s aim was to “discover and communicate the changes taking place in this remote and pristine environment”.
Outlining the science case, the expedition says: “Three years’ worth of observations gleaned by Mawson and his men provide a unique dataset against which we can compare the changes seen today.
“Policy documents highlight numerous science questions that need to be urgently addressed across the region.
“And yet, despite of a century of research, major questions remain about whether the changes seen today are exceptional.”
The expedition notes say the East Antarctic Ice Sheet contains enough fresh water to raise the world’s sea level by about 52m.
“Until recently it was thought this ice sheet was stable, sitting on the continental crust above today’s sea level,” the notes say.
“However there is an increasing body of evidence, including by the AAE members, that (has) identified parts of the East Antarctic (that) are highly susceptible to melting and collapse from ocean warming.”
Further countering claims this was not a climate expedition are its published aims and objectives, which include:
Gaining new insights into the circulation of the Southern Ocean and its impact on the global carbon cycle.
Exploring changes in ocean circulation caused by the growth of extensive fast ice and its impact on life in Commonwealth Bay.
Using the subantarctic islands as thermometers of climate change by using trees, peats and lakes to explore the past.
Investigating the impact of changing climate on the ecology of the subantarctic islands.
Providing baseline data to improve the next generation of atmospheric, ocean and ice sheet models to improve predictions for the future.
Unfortunately for Turney the take-out of the mission for a legion of sceptical bloggers worldwide has been “global warming scientists forced to admit defeat because of too much ice”.
The accumulation of ice in Antarctica as ice was lost in the Arctic has been an enduring source of fascination for climate and weather watchers worldwide.
The most recent observation from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in the US says: “Antarctic sea ice extent remained unusually high, near or above previous daily maximum values for each day in November.”
Sea ice extent averaged 17.16 million square kilometres for November compared with the long-term 1981 to 2010 average extent for the month of 16.30 million square kilometres.
The NASA Earth Observatory said in late September that the ice surrounding Antarctica reached its annual winter maximum and set a new record of 19.47 million square kilometres, up from a previous record of 19.44 million square kilometres set the previous year.