January 10, 2018

Tipping toward a new Ice Age

Filed under: Environment, History, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Matt Ridley on the possibility that our current interglacial period — the time period during which all of human history has played out from before the start of agricultural civilization down to today — may be coming to an end:

In 1976 Nicholas Shackleton, a Cambridge physicist, and his colleagues published evidence from deep-sea cores of cycles in the warming and cooling of the Earth over the past half million years which fitted Milankovich’s orbital wobbles. Precession, which decides whether the Earth is closer to the sun in July or in January, is on a 23,000-year cycle; obliquity, which decides how tilted the axis of the Earth is and therefore how warm the summer is, is on a 41,000-year cycle; and eccentricity, which decides how rounded or elongated the Earth’s orbit is and therefore how close to the sun the planet gets, is on a 100,000-year cycle. When these combine to make a “great summer” in the north, the ice caps shrink.

Game, set and match to Milankovich? Not quite. The Antarctic ice cores, going back 800,000 years, then revealed that there were some great summers when the Milankovich wobbles should have produced an interglacial warming, but did not. To explain these “missing interglacials”, a recent paper in Geoscience Frontiers by Ralph Ellis and Michael Palmer argues we need carbon dioxide back on the stage, not as a greenhouse gas but as plant food.

The argument goes like this. Colder oceans evaporate less moisture and rainfall decreases. At the depth of the last ice age, Africa suffered long mega-droughts; only small pockets of rainforest remained. Crucially, the longer an ice age lasts, the more carbon dioxide is dissolved in the cold oceans. When the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere drops below 200 parts per million (0.02 per cent), plants struggle to grow at all, especially at high altitudes. Deserts expand. Dust storms grow more frequent and larger. In the Antarctic ice cores, dust increased markedly whenever carbon dioxide levels got below 200 ppm. The dust would have begun to accumulate on the ice caps, especially those of Eurasia and North America, which were close to deserts. Next time a Milankovich great summer came along, and the ice caps began to melt, the ice would have grown dirtier and dirtier, years of deposited dust coming together as the ice shrank. The darker ice would have absorbed more heat from the sun and a runaway process of collapsing ice caps would have begun.

All of human civilisation happened in an interglacial period, with a relatively stable climate, plentiful rainfall and high enough levels of carbon dioxide to allow the vigorous growth of plants. Agriculture was probably impossible before then, and without its hugely expanded energy supply, none of the subsequent flowering of human culture would have happened.

That interglacial will end. Today the northern summer sunshine is again slightly weaker than the southern. In a few tens of thousands of years, our descendants will probably be struggling with volatile weather, dust storms and air that cannot support many crops. But that is a very long way off, and by then technology should be more advanced, unless we prevent it developing. The key will be energy. With plentiful and cheap energy our successors could thrive even in a future ice age, growing crops, watering deserts, maintaining rainforests and even melting ice caps.

August 2, 2016

The Great Explorer – Ernest Shackleton I WHO DID WHAT IN WW1?

Filed under: Europe, History, Military, WW1 — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 1 Aug 2016

Ernest Shackelton set sail for the Antarctic when most young men in Europe were setting sail to fight a war. While millions of them died, he was completely isolated trying to survive the harsh conditions. Shackelton’s expediton was probably one of the last grand ventures from the age of wonder and when he reached civilisation again, the world had truly gone mad.

June 30, 2014

Emperor penguins at risk

Filed under: Environment, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:15

A somewhat confusing report from BBC News says that due to warming in the Antarctic, there is now record ice extent, which means Emperor penguins have to travel much further to find open water. The warming (which has created all the extra ice) is expected to get much worse and is predicted to cut the penguin population by up to a third by the end of the century.

The main threat to the penguins comes from changes to sea-ice cover in the Antarctic, which will affect their breeding and feeding.

Dynamics will differ between penguin colonies, but all are expected to be in decline by the end of the century.

Details are published in Nature Climate Change journal.

The US, British and Dutch researchers urge governments to list the birds as endangered. Such a listing could impose restrictions on tourism and fishing.

The team, led by Stephanie Jenouvrier of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said the global population of emperor penguins would probably decline by between 19 and 33% from current levels.


“There is a goldilocks point for ice and emperor penguins,” Phil Trathan, an expert at the British Antarctic Survey (Bas), told Reuters.

Mr Trathan said it was unclear if the ungainly birds could adapt by climbing on to land or higher ice. Four emperor penguin colonies had recently been found on ice shelves, above sea level where glaciers spill off the land.

Satellite measurements of Antarctic sea-ice extent show winter coverage to be at record levels. However, climate computer modelling expects this trend to be reversed in the future, as conditions in the Antarctic warm.

Anyone else remember this French TV commercial?

Update, 2 July: Blinded by Beliefs: The Straight Poop on Emperor Penguins.

Two recent press releases concerning the Emperor Penguin’s fate illustrate contrasting forces that will either advance or suppress trustworthy conservation science. The first study reminds me of Mark Twain’s quip, “Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.” Embodying that truism is a paper by lead author Dr. Michelle LaRue who reports new advances in reading the Emperor Penguin’s fecal stains on Antarctic sea ice that are visible in satellite pictures. Two years ago the fecal stain method identified several large, hitherto unknown colonies and nearly doubled our estimate of the world’s Emperor Penguins. That didn’t mean climate change had necessarily increased penguin numbers, but a larger more robust population meant Emperor Penguins were far more resilient to any form of change.

January 7, 2014

Fortunate wind shift helps free trapped Antarctic vessels

Filed under: China, Environment, Russia — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:19

AntarcticaBBC News updates us on the situation:

The Russian research ship Akademik Shokalskiy and Chinese icebreaker Xue Long have broken free from Antarctic ice where they had been stranded for several days.

The Russian ship’s captain said a crack had appeared in the ice after a change in wind direction.

The Akademik Shokalskiy got stuck on 25 December. It has a Russian crew of 22.

On Thursday, the Xue Long‘s helicopter ferried 52 passengers from the stranded Russian ship to an Australian vessel.

The Xue Long then became stuck itself on Friday.


A US Coastguard icebreaker, Polar Star, is heading towards the two ships, responding to an earlier request for help. It left Sydney, Australia, on Sunday and will take a week to get there.

The Akademik Shokalskiy got trapped by thick floes of ice driven by strong winds about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart in Tasmania. It was being used by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) 2013 to follow the route explorer Douglas Mawson travelled a century ago.

January 6, 2014

US icebreaker dispatched to assist Chinese icebreaker in Antarctic

Filed under: Australia, China, Environment, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:02

AntarcticaThe Australian is reporting that the US Coast Guard’s Polar Star is enroute to assist the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long and the chartered Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy:

The US Coast Guard’s Polar Star accepted a request from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) to help the Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy, which has been marooned since Christmas Eve.

It will also aid the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, which was involved in a dramatic helicopter rescue of the Shokalskiy’s 52 passengers last Thursday before also becoming beset by ice.

AMSA confirmed the Polar Star, which was on its way from Seattle for an Antarctic mission, had diverted course and was on its way to help.

It will take about seven days for the icebreaker, with a crew of 140 people, to reach Commonwealth Bay after collecting supplies from Sydney today.

The AMSA spokeswoman said the Polar Star had greater capabilities than the Russian and Chinese vessels.

“It can break ice over six metres thick, while those vessels can break one-metre ice,” she told AAP on Sunday.

“The idea is to break them out, but they will make a decision once they arrive on scene on the best way to do this.” AMSA will be in regular contact with the US Coast Guard and the captain of the Polar Star during its journey to Antarctica.

Twenty-two crew remain on board the Shokalskiy, which sparked a rescue mission after a blizzard pushed sea ice around the ship and froze it in place on December 24.

A U.S. Coast Guard HH-52A Seaguard helicopter landing on the icebreaker USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10).

A U.S. Coast Guard HH-52A Seaguard helicopter landing on the icebreaker USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10).

January 4, 2014

Antarctic climate researchers still not home-free

Filed under: Australia, Environment, Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:59

AntarcticaRemember the story about the Australian climate researchers trapped in the Antarctic ice? The good news from a few days back — that all the passengers of the MS Akademik Shokalskiy (including researchers, tourists, and journalists, but not the crew) had been successfully transferred to the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis is now overshadowed because the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long which also responded to the SOS call is now itself also trapped in the ice:

The saga just keeps going. The Chinese Icebreaker is now also stuck, and has asked for help so the Aurora Australis with 52 extra passengers rescued from the Russian Charter boat have to stay nearby to help. Twenty two Russian sailors are still trapped on board the Russian boat — the Akademik Sholaskiy. Plus other scientists in Antarctica still don’t have their equipment. Costs for everyone involved are continuing to rise.

In The Australian, Graham Lloyd‘s paywalled article begins with this:

TAXPAYERS will foot a $400,000 bill for the rescue of a group of climate scientists, tourists and journalists from a stranded Russian research vessel — an operation that has blown the contingency budget of Australia’s Antarctic program and disrupted its scientific work. The Antarctic Division in Hobart said it was revising plans and considering airlifting urgently needed scientific equipment that could not be unloaded from Aurora Australis before the ship was diverted from the Casey base to rescue the novice ice explorers just before Christmas.

The Sydney Morning Herald posted this short video earlier in the week, before the Aurora Australis had gotten close enough to take on the passengers from the Akademik Sholaskiy:

Update: The head of French antarctic research is unhappy with the tourists’ disruption to actual science work:

The head of France’s polar science institute voiced fury on Friday at the misadventures of a Russian ship trapped in Antarctic ice, deriding what he called a tourists’ trip that had diverted resources from real science.

In an interview with AFP, Yves Frenot, director of the French Polar Institute, said he had no issue at all with rescuing those aboard the stricken vessel.

But, he said, the trip itself was a “pseudo-scientific expedition” that, because it had run into difficulties, had drained resources from the French, Chinese and Australian scientific missions in Antarctica. “There’s no reason to place Antarctica off-limits and to keep it just for scientists, but this tourism has to be monitored and regulated so that operators can be sure of getting help if need be,” he said.

January 1, 2014

The hazards facing the Australasian Antarctic Expedition

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:25

AntarcticaThe Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) has run into far harsher sea and ice conditions than they’d banked on, and it raises questions about the scientific validity of the expedition:

The purpose of the AAE expedition was to take a science team of 36 women and men south to discover just how much change has taken place at Mawson Station over 100 years. The expedition was also intended to replicate the original AAE led by explorer Sir Douglas Mawson a century ago, in 1913. The new expedition was to be led by Prof. Chris Turney, a publicity-hungry professor of climate change at Australia’s University of New South Wales.


Also the expedition was designed to generate lots of publicity. Along the scientists and ship’s crew were 4 journalists from leading media outlets who would feed news regularly, and later report extensively on the results and findings. All this in turn would bring loads of attention to a region that is said to be threatened by global warming. The AAE’s donation website even states that the expedition’s purpose is to collect data and that the findings are “to reach the public and policy makers as soon as possible“.

But expeditions of this type are expensive and funding is not always easy to come by. Costs can run in the millions as special equipment is needed to handle the extremely harsh conditions of the South Pole. Downplaying the conditions to justify cost-cutting by using lower grade equipment rapidly jeopardizes safety.

Inadequate, bargain-price research vessel

The first error expedition leaders made was under-estimating the prevailing sea ice conditions at Mawson Station, their destination. The scientists seemed to be convinced that Antarctica was a warmer place today than it had been 100 years earlier, and thus perhaps they could expect less sea ice there. This in turn would allow them to charter a lighter, cheaper vessel.

This seems to be the case judging by their choice of seafaring vessel. They chartered a Russian vessel MS Akademik Shokalskiy, an ice-strengthened ship built in Finland in 1982. According to Wikipedia the ship has two passenger decks, with dining rooms, a bar, a library, and a sauna, and accommodates 54 passengers and a crew of up to 30. Though it is ice-reinforced, it is not an ice-breaker. This is a rather surprising selection for an expedition to Antarctica, especially in view that the AAE website itself expected to travel through areas that even icebreakers at times are unable to penetrate, as we are now vividly witnessing. Perhaps the price for chartering the Russian vessel was too good to pass up.

Luring naïve tourists as a source of cash

What made the expedition even more dubious is that Turney and his team brought on paying tourists in what appears to have been an attempt to help defray the expedition’s costs and to be a source of cheap labor. According to the AAE website, the expedition was costed at US$1.5 million, which included the charter of the Akademik Shokalskiy to access the remote locations. “The site berths on board are available for purchase.” Prices start at $8000!

The expedition brought with it 4 journalists, 26 paying tourists.

Update, 2 January: An editorial in The Australian after news came out that all of the 52 passengers had been rescued from the ice-bound Akademik Shokalskiy:

YOU have to feel a touch of sympathy for the global warming scientists, journalists and other hangers-on aboard the Russian ship stuck in impenetrable ice in Antarctica, the mission they so confidently embarked on to establish solid evidence of melting ice caps resulting from climate change embarrassingly abandoned because the ice is, in fact, so impossibly thick.


Professor Turney’s expedition was supposed to repeat scientific investigations made by Douglas Mawson a century ago and to compare then and now. Not unreasonably, it has been pointed out Mawson’s ship was never icebound. Sea ice has been steadily increasing, despite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s gloomy forecasts. Had the expedition found the slightest evidence to confirm its expectation of melting ice caps and thin ice, a major new scare about the plight of the planet would have followed. As they are transferred to sanctuary aboard the icebreaker Aurora Australis, Professor Turney and his fellow evacuees must accept the embarrassing failure of their mission shows how uncertain the science of climate change really is. They cannot reasonably do otherwise.

The 22 crew members will stay on board the vessel until it can be released from the ice (or until another rescue effort needs to be mounted).

March 23, 2012

New evidence that the Medieval Warm Period was not local to Europe

Filed under: Environment, History, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:25

AntarcticaLewis Page summarizes some recent findings published in the peer-reviewed Earth and Planetary Science Letters journal:

More peer-reviewed science contradicting the warming-alarmist “scientific consensus” was announced yesterday, as a new study shows that the well-documented warm period which took place in medieval times was not limited to Europe, or the northern hemisphere: it reached all the way to Antarctica.

The research involved the development of a new means of assessing past temperatures, to add to existing methods such as tree ring analysis and ice cores. In this study, scientists analysed samples of a crystal called ikaite, which forms in cold waters.

[. . .]

A proper temperature record for Antarctica is particularly interesting, as it illuminates one of the main debates in global-warming/climate-change: namely, were the so-called Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age merely regional, or were they global events? The medieval warmup experienced by northern Europeans from say 900AD to 1250AD seems to have been at least as hot as anything seen in the industrial era. If it was worldwide in extent that would strongly suggest that global warming may just be something that happens from time to time, not something caused by miniscule concentrations of CO2 (the atmosphere is 0.04 per cent CO2 right now; this figure might climb to 0.07 per cent in the medium term).

January 5, 2012

The quest to re-create Shackleton’s whisky

Filed under: Britain, History, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 14:01

AntarcticaYour wee dram of SCIENCE! How they managed to re-create the whisky from Mackinlay & Co. that Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition took along in 1907:

How was the re-creation carried out? Dr. James Pryde, chief chemist at Whyte and Mackay, subjected the samples to a comprehensive chemical analysis, in conjunction with a rigorous sensory analysis (that is, sniffing and tasting). Firstly, it was established that the alcoholic strength of the whisky was high enough that it very likely never froze over the years it spent interred in Antarctica. In winter, the hut reached a minimum temperature of -32.5°C, but, at 47 percent alcohol, the whisky remained liquid down to a couple of degrees cooler than that extreme. This eliminated what had been a significant source of concern about the quality of the sample, that decades of freezing and thawing had altered or ruined it. Carbon dating verified that the whisky did indeed date from the Shackleton era.

Phenol and related phenolic compounds show up in Scotch whiskies, giving them the unmistakable character that’s referred to “peaty,” because the flavor is introduced when the grain is exposed to peat smoke during the malting process. Chemical analysis revealed not only the quantity of phenolics in the Mackinlay — surprisingly low, given that era’s reputation for heavily peated malts — but also the particular balance of compounds, which enabled the experts to pinpoint what region the peat used had likely come from. The answer? Orkney.

Similarly, analysis of the compounds that result from barrel-aging was able to finger the barrels in which the whisky was aged as ones made from American oak and probably used once before to age wine or sherry. Gas chromatograph olfactometry, in which the spirit is broken down into its volatile components and each of these smelled individually by experts, gave clues as to details of the fermentation and distilling process.

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