Antarctic expedition icebound: Human stasis, not climate change

Antarctic expedition icebound: Human stasis, not climate change

In one of those codas you can’t make up, the indispensable Watts Up With That site posted the real scoop, a couple of days ago, on the research ship Akademik Shokalskiy’s ill-fated encounter with Antarctic ice.

WUWT’s Anthony Watts was vectored by a reader onto the log entries being posted by members of the Australian-led expedition.  The logs revealed not only that the ship had been operating in heavy ice for days before becoming stuck, but that the ship’s master was well aware the ice was closing in on them on 23 December, and was trying to get everyone back onboard so he could move the ship.  The problem was that the expedition’s members, scattered across the ice on their various tasks, were dawdling in their progress back to the ship.

It’s certainly a tale made for Hollywood: humans being humans and not moving fast enough for Mother Nature.  Some will be reminded of Bruce Greenwood’s Dr. McLaren, the foot-dragging scientist in the Paul Walker flick Eight Below (Frank Marshall, 2006).  Others will simply recall any group tour they’ve ever been on, and the inevitability of fellow tourists who just can’t seem to get back to the rendezvous point on time.

That said, the expedition’s leader, Australian professor Chris Turney, is adamant that his group wasn’t on a tourist excursion.  The Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) was a scientific mission to study the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.

Fair enough.  Turney makes this fair point as well:

Let’s be clear. Us becoming locked in ice was not caused by climate change. Instead it seems to have been an aftershock of the arrival of iceberg B09B which triggered a massive reconfiguration of sea ice in the area.

The thing he doesn’t quite clarify is that the sea-ice reconfiguration was an ongoing development (begun when B09B calved in 2010), which the ship’s crew and the expedition’s log-keepers were aware of all along.

It helps to know that, from the mariner’s standpoint, icebreaking is an inexact science, one with narrow operational boundaries and “no-go” conditions that even the most seasoned arctic seaman can sometimes misjudge.  Coast Guard sailors with ice experience could comment in more depth on this.  Was it stupid of Akademik Shokalskiy and the AAE team to get themselves surrounded by ice as they did?  Maybe; but the purpose of Akademik Shokalskiy is to operate surrounded by ice.  Whether given conditions are beyond her limits is a judgment call.

Perhaps Akademik Shokalskiy’s master didn’t give himself enough lead time, on one fateful day, to round up his peripatetic passengers and still meet the goals of good judgment.  I wasn’t there, and wouldn’t draw a conclusion without having all the facts.

There are some conclusions we can draw, however.  Many readers will have heard that the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, sent to assist Akademik Shokalskiy, became stuck in the ice herself a few miles from the Russian ship on Friday.  The U.S. Coast Guard is sending USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10), a heavy icebreaker, to provide further assistance.  Clearly – Conclusion 1 – there is plenty of sea ice off the coast of Antarctica.

(This article at The Australian, with commentary from an official of the Australian Maritime Safety Administration, provides some perspective on the likelihood of ships getting stuck in conditions like the ones Akademik Shokalskiy faced in Commonwealth Bay.)

We won’t settle here the question of whether increased sea ice in Antarctica is paradoxical, or what it proves, or for that matter what is proven by the resurgence of sea ice in the Arctic since the low-ice years of 2010-11.

But the other conclusion we can draw is that humans will be humans.  Especially when they’re being harder to herd than a passel of alley cats.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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