Tag Archives: Antarctica

Trapped in Antarctic ice because of weather or climate change?


When looking at the developments of the Antarctic vessel Academik Shokalskiy that stranded in the ice during its touristic/research mission, it remembered me of an expedition in the Arctic: the Mainstream Last First Expedition in 2013. For those who don’t remember or didn’t follow these expeditions some background.

The Mainstream Last First Expedition was trying to cross (a part of) the Northwest Passage in an (uninforced) row boat. They communicated to the world that their trip would prove global warming because it would be the first time this trip was done on human power alone. After about two months they realized there was much more ice they ever anticipated and it blocked their passage. This made them abort their trip about half way.

The Spirit of Mawson expedition was inspired by the expedition of the Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson, one of Antarctica’s earliest pioneers. Lawson led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition between 1911 and 1914 in which scientific measurements were done. The idea was to redo his measurements and study the effect of climate change on the Antarctic. Everything went well until Christmas Eve, when the ship got stuck in ice. Not being an icebreaker it couldn’t get out and help from icebreakers was requested. The Australian icebreaker Aurora australis couldn’t get trough and the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon) even got stuck in the attempt. In the end the helicopter of the Xue Long rescued the passengers from the stranded vessel. Both vessels are still stuck in the ice at this moment.

Both expeditions didn’t expect to encounter much sea ice. The Mainstream Last First expedition rowed in a non-reinforced boat of fiberglass, very vulnerable for ruptures by the ice. Their assumption was that the passage was virtually ice free and they would have a clear way. If they were expecting significant amounts of ice they would not choose this type of boat to do their trip.
The Spirit of Mawson expedition, despite the Antarctic sea ice being at an all time high, didn’t expect much sea ice in that area in December. Therefor they didn’t do the trip in an icebreaker, but in a vessel with a reinforced hull. They also took with them tourists and journalists (BBC, The Guardian and the Radio New Zealand). They were quite sure there was not much danger.

Both expeditions also had an extensive media campaign and a scientific aspect (far more in the Mawson expedition than in the Mainstream Last First expedition).

The stranded vessel generated a lot of media attention. The expedition was criticized for doing tourism disguised as science, the inadequate vessel, for being naive in the dangers they put children and tourists in a a harsh environment, the poor communication with the Russian crew. Even other polar scientists seemed not amused (in French) with the touristic/scientific expedition that consumed other scientists resources and put rescuers at risk. But most saw the irony of scientists who studied climate change being themselves being trapped by the ice they clearly weren’t expecting. Although they should have know that sea ice extent in the Antarctic was at an all time high and the bay they were heading to was notorious for its increased sea ice because an ice berg crashed into a glacier tongue three years ago.

Being frustrated about the criticism, Turney explained his view in the Guardian

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.

He didn’t add that the calving of the Ross glacier (where iceberg B09B was originally from) IS attributed to global warming, so at least indirect the cause. And the storm (explained as being unexpected) was not unpredictable.

An article in the Guardian by John Turner explains a bit more:


In fact, the local weather patterns that brought about the rapid build up of ice that trapped the Academik Shokalskiy tell us very little about global warming. This is weather, not climate.

Regionally, climate change can vary markedly across the Earth so to detect human influences on the climate system climate scientists must consider the Earth as a whole.

What is clear is that the impact of climate change on ice at both poles is complex.

In the area where the Akademik Shokalskiy is trapped there has been an increase in sea ice extent for the year as a whole since the late 1970s, although not for the month of December (see attached graph). The amount of ice in the area can vary considerably from year to year making ship operations difficult. The December ice extent in 2011 and 2012 was much larger than the long-term mean, and the ice in 2013 has obviously been of comparable magnitude.


I agree there in this point of view this is an example of weather, not climate. But this area had an increase of ice since the late 1970s. That’s not simply weather anymore and they should be prepared for that. Especially when they knew the amount could vary considerably from year to year and make things difficult.

I have to admit that Turney himself didn’t talk about disappearing sea ice in the Antarctic. The only thing I found was:

However there is an increasing body of evidence, including by the AAE members, that have identified parts of the East Antarctic which are highly susceptible to melting and collapse from ocean warming.

This is deliciously vague, it could well be melting of the ice shelf and/or sea ice. But at least the BBC saw that differently:


One of the aims was to track how quickly the Antarctic’s sea ice was disappearing.


Ooops…this was being said by a broadcast station that should have FIRST HAND INFORMATION about the project! Was the reporter not informed about this part of the project? Did he (or the home base) wrote this on their own initiative? Or was this really a part of the project?

This brings me to a final reflection. What if there hadn’t been (much) ice when they got there? Does anybody think things like this would have been written: “This is weather, not climate”, “We must consider the Earth as a whole” or “The impact of climate change on ice at both poles is complex”? With journalists from at least two alarmist media, we would probably have a barrage of articles that claim that this voyage proved that global warming is alive and kicking in the Antarctic…