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Friday, 26 December 2014

Rescued scientists bring back a warning from the Antarctic

Rescued scientists bring back a warning from the Antarctic

Rescued scientists bring back a warning from the Antarctic






The icebound crew of the Akademik Shokalskiy made headlines but, a year on, the fruits of their expedition are revealed


Rescue from Antarctic - the full story









The Australasian Antarctic Expedition

Alok Jha and Laurence Topham look on at the Akademik Shokalskiy beset in
ice in East Antarctica. Photograph: Andrew Peacock /Rex Features



The voyage was meant to retrace the steps of Douglas Mawson, the
great polar explorer and scientist who led the Australasian Antarctic
Expedition of 1911. What happened instead captured the world’s
attention, something none of the scientists, journalists and paying
public aboard could have foreseen.



The Akademik Shokalskiy got stuck in ice on Christmas Day 2013 only
two weeks after leaving New Zealand. A rescue mission swung into
operation. Chinese, French and Australian icebreakers hurried to the
scene only to be defeated by the ice floes themselves.



News editors around the world must have thanked their chosen gods.
Into the seasonal dead zone, a real story had dropped. Stranded far from
home, those aboard the Shokalskiy faced danger amidst the spectacular
ice.



That New Year’s Eve an interview with expedition leader Chris Turney
was beamed live to Times Square in New York. Two days later, the rescue
effort entered a new phase. With no icebreaker able to smash way
through, a Chinese helicopter, Xue Ying, or “Snow Eagle”, rose into the
air for the first of five flights to ferry passengers from the stricken
ship to the Aurora Australis. A core crew remained behind to sail vessel
home once conditions allowed.




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Media interest in the expedition faded after the rescue, but in the
year since Turney and his team have been busy. Scientific samples and
measurements from the voyage are being turned into research papers that
reveal striking changes at the southern ice cap. And rather than feeling
discouraged about expeditions that are funded by paying passengers,
Turney is more enthusiastic than ever.



“Once we got back home and made sure everyone was all right, we got
on with working up the data and getting a whole load of papers ready for
submission,” Turney said. Like the rescue mission, this involved plenty
of waiting. “It took nearly six months to get all the samples through
quarantine.”



Simple observations told unhappy stories. Trawls of water reeled in
hauls of plastic rubbish, now seemingly ubiquitous in the world’s
oceans. On land, counts of Adélie penguins revealed the population had
slumped near Mawson’s huts in Commonwealth Bay in East Antarctica.
The birds are now commuting 40 miles to get food for their young.
“Another 10 years there probably won’t be many left,” said Turney. The
numbers of skuas seemed to have fallen too.




Passengers aboard Akademik Shokalskiy were successfully transferred by Chinese helicopter to the ice surface near Australian rescue ship Aurora Australis in January.






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Passengers aboard Akademik
Shokalskiy were successfully transferred by Chinese helicopter to the
ice surface near Australian rescue ship Aurora Australis in January.

Photograph: Unimedia/Barcroft Media



Commonwealth Bay has experienced substantial changes in recent years.
In summertime fierce katabatic winds blow off the continent and chill
the surrounding surface water to freezing point. The freshly created ice
blows out to sea, as if on a production line. But the freezing process
leaves behind cold, dense water that sinks to the sea floor, forming
part of an oceanic current that drives circulation on a global scale.



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The
ocean circulation at Commonwealth Bay was disrupted in 2010 after an
enormous iceberg, B09B, arrived. The 30 mile-long slab of ice smashed
into the nearby Mertz glacier tongue and grounded itself at the entrance
to the bay. That blocked the exit for fresh sea ice. As the ice built
up, the ocean conveyor system partially closed down.



Such changes were bound to impact on life beneath the ice. Scientists
inspected ecosystems on the sea floor. “You see this remarkable
transition with the expansion of sea ice. A lot of kelp and other life
on the seabed is dead or dying. We’re seeing instead much of the deeper
flora and fauna, as they come up from the deeper seabed because there’s
an ecological niche to be filled,” said Turney. The shift in the
ecosystem is expected to have impacts all the way up the foodchain.




A view of the trapped Akademik Shokalskiy from across the ice in Antarctica.






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A view of the trapped Akademik Shokalskiy from across the ice in Antarctica.
Photograph: Laurence Topham



What has happened in Commonwealth Bay may be echoed around the
continent in the future. In Antarctica sea ice is extending, for reasons
that are unclear, but possibly through the actions of stronger winds
churning out more and more sea ice. “What B09B has done is effectively
fast track an area of East Antarctica and given us an insight into what
the rest of the place might be experiencing if the trend continues,”
Turney said.



More data is being crunched by the Shokalskiy team. Some draws on
measurements from rocks that will reveal how and when ice expanded from
the polar ice cap along a 3,500km stretch of coastline.



When the Shokalskiy got stuck last Christmas, Turney and the rest
aboard the vessel failed to grasp how much attention the expedition was
receiving. “At one level I still can’t fathom it. We were living in our
own bubble. We were on a ship that had serious problems,” said Turney.




Passengers and scientists stomp an area of ice next to the Akademik Shokalskiy for a makeshift helicopter landing pad in readiness for evacuation from the trapped ship in Antarctica.






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Passengers and scientists stomp an
area of ice next to the Akademik Shokalskiy for a makeshift helicopter
landing pad in readiness for evacuation from the trapped ship in
Antarctica.

Photograph: Laurence Topham



As the story went global, the venture came in for plenty of
criticism. Climate sceptics suggested the incident disproved global
warming, even though the ship’s encasement was caused by the wind
blowing ice around, making this a weather problem rather than a climate
impact.



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justified were complaints that the expedition had disrupted the
scientific work of other teams, principally those affected by the
diversion of the several nations’ icebreakers who arrived to help the
Shokalskiy. “From an Australian perspective, many projects were
cancelled or abbreviated because of re-direction of shipping, a problem
when shipping is such a limiting factor,” said Pat Quilty, former chief
scientist at the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition, and a
researcher at the University of Tasmania.



Turney acknowledges that the rescue operation had an impact on
others’ scientific work, but adds that Antarctica is a risky place for
any expedition. “There was disruption and we were incredibly grateful to
everyone for their help. Fortunately though, from what we learned
later, it seems that a lot of work was not harmed,” Turney said.




The Chinese Antarctic vessel Xue Long seen from the bridge of the Aurora Australis ship off Antarctica, both in the frozen waters to help rescue the nearby Russian research ship.






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The Chinese Antarctic vessel Xue
Long seen from the bridge of the Aurora Australis ship off Antarctica,
both in the frozen waters to help rescue the nearby Russian research
ship.

Photograph: Jessica Fitzpatrick/AFP/Getty Images



Like Mawson’s expedition in 1911, Turney’s was only possible because
the public helped pay. Half of the standard passengers aboard the
Shokalskiy paid A$18,000 (£9,700) to go along as scientific assistants.
On the voyage Turney published progress reports on Facebook, Google+ and
Twitter. He wanted to reach as many people as possible.



Rather than feeling chastened by the trip, he is more convinced than
ever that the paying, participating public are crucial. “There’s a
natural interest in discovery, in exploring. You can take some people
with you on the expedition, and with modern technology you can take the
rest of the world,” he said.





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