Archive for March, 2009

As you will have read over the past three weeks, I have had the huge privilege of visiting the continent of Antarctica.

First of all, two acknowledgements, to Robert Swan at 2041 for asking me to come on his expedition and talk about climate change and to Shell for supporting me.

David and Robert Swan on the Antarctic Peninsula

David and Robert Swan on the Antarctic Peninsula

 

Unlike the Arctic, Antarctica is not a place to really see the effects of climate change, at least not yet. There is strong anecdotal evidence of changes on the Antarctic Peninsula and there have been some spectacular break ups of big ice shelves over the last few years, but despite recent findings published earlier this year in Nature, the science is not yet clear on the fate of this continent and its vast ice coverage as the world warms – but it is hard to rationalise that nothing will happen there.

Visiting Antarctica is quite an overwhelming experience. Standing on the rugged shore (no docks here) in a remote bay watching penguins go about their business and whales feed in the icy water, it makes you think about what the world was once like, before humans shaped it for our own use. We have “geo-engineered” the planet and its atmosphere in just 1000 years, with the bulk of it happening in the last 100 years.

There is little true land-based wilderness left, just pockets here and there, but even they are usually inhabited or used by man.

Mankind has also changed the composition of the atmosphere. First it was local air pollution, then regional impacts and now it is global. We have already seen that global change in the atmosphere does have an impact. The ozone layer thinned following a build-up of Chloro-Fluoro-Carbons (CFCs), perhaps the most telling aspect of our presence on this planet for a long-term visitor to the Antarctic. But we have also demonstrated that these local, regional and even global issues can be addressed and that a balance can eventually be restored.

Now humans are altering the quantity of greenhouse gas components in the atmosphere with scant collective thought about what it really means for the future. The issue is highlighted again in the Guardian today with an article about Nicholas Stern . Lord Stern has shown us very clearly that there is an economic rationale for addressing the build-up of CO2 and other GHGs in the atmosphere, yet as the article discusses we persist in an endless debate on the issue itself.

As a person with a science and engineering background, the issue is very simple and it astonishes me that the simple physics behind what is happening in the atmosphere is so disputed. The facts are clear:

  • Humans are raising the level of CO2 and other GHGs in the atmosphere through the huge level of global industrial activity.
  • We all know and have known for over 100 years that GHGs, in particular CO2, are key regulators of our long-term global environment.

Given this, we shouldn’t be surprised to expect a change if we double or triple the level of these gases in the atmosphere or (like CFCs) we introduce them in significant quantities for the very first time.

Despite the fact that we have enormous regard for science and take it for granted in devices we use every day (such as the computer you are reading this blog on), we seem bent on not believing our atmospheric chemists and others like them who have worked just as hard at establishing their base of knowledge as those who led the way for transistors, semi-conductors and now nanotechnology. It’s a bit like being given some very bad health news by a world leading oncologist then visiting 99 other doctors with various qualifications until one tells us that we will probably be OK and then deciding that this is the one that must be right – and it turns out his specialty isn’t oncology and he might not be a doctor at all – but we believe him anyway.

We can even measure the change in infrared absorption over the last 30 years yet still we argue the point.

Changes in outgoing long-wave radiation 1970-1997 (satellite)

Changes in outgoing long-wave radiation 1970-1997 (satellite)

 

 

 

 

Nicholas Stern has also outlined the key elements of a global deal. It’s not complicated, but it will require an unprecedented level of global cooperation to agree and implement. But as I saw on my Antarctic expedition, attended by people from over 20 countries, that level of cooperation is possible.

So now I am back in the real world of politics and self-interest (and e-mail) and today the first round of international talks (for 2009) in the lead-up to Copenhagen starts in Bonn.

 

There is much to do !

 

 

 

 

 

Some final photos from Antarctica

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An albatross following the ship in the Drake Passage.

An albatross following the ship in the Drake Passage.

 

A fur seal on the Antarctic Peninsula

A fur seal on the Antarctic Peninsula

 

Closing in on the face of a glacier

Closing in on the face of a glacier

 

Some sunlight at last

Some sunlight at last

 

Some sunlight at last

Some sunlight at last

 

A gentoo penguin

A gentoo penguin

 

Gentoo penguins after a swim

Gentoo penguins after a swim

 

Ice is nice

Ice is nice

 

Birdlife in the Antarctic

Birdlife in the Antarctic

 

A glacier face in Paradise Harbour

A glacier face in Paradise Harbour

 

A curious leopard seal circling our Zodiac boat

 

Back in Buenos Aires

We left the Antarctic Peninsula in something of a rush on Tuesday morning. The expedition arose early to view the incredible Lemaire Channel, which narrows to some 800 metres with mountains of at least that height rising vertically from the channel itself on both sides. But the weather was dreadful and whilst we got some idea of the majesty of this scene, we really saw very little. Our first scheduled stop after the Lemaire was pretty much a washout as well. Apart from the hardy satellite guys who need the steadiness of dry land to upload the various blog posts and other messages, none of us made it ashore.

A few Zodiac excursions were arranged, but those onboard (me included) were soaked through within minutes as waves broke relentlessly over the bow of these tiny vessels and driving snow, ice and wind made it almost impossible to make progress.

An early executive decision was made to abandon plans for our last shore visit and head back to Ushuaia instead, given that the storm we were now in the midst of could make progress across the Drake Passage pretty slow. So we headed off into a Force 8 gale and the Drake gave us its best (well we thought it was pretty bad but the old hands on board still insisted it was nothing much).

Not many made it to dinner that evening as sea legs proved to be less than ready for the onslaught. The Akademic Ioffe is a brilliant ship and very stable, but 6+ metre waves lifted the ship high out of the water with the flipside zero G feeling as the vessel dropped down the back side of the swell to sea level. After a dozen or so of these in the space of a few minutes most have had enough – but this is like a broken carnival ride – there is no getting off.

Crossing the Drake Passage (the calm bit)
Crossing the Drake Passage (the calm bit)
The storm passed but the rest of the passage was rough nevertheless. On Thursday afternoon (March 26th) we spotted Cape Horn and officially “rounded the Horn” together with the cruise ship Amsterdam heading in the opposite direction.
The Amsterdam rounds Cape Horn

The Amsterdam rounds Cape Horn

So now I am back in Buenos Aires, but still a day from London. It took most of today to get from Ushuaia to here, with delays and distance rminding me that Antarctica really is a distant land.
Plotting the course across Drake's Passage

Plotting the course across the Drake.

A more traditional (b)log.

A more traditional (b)log.

Missing posting – Icebergs, whales and a canary

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It appears that the satellite e-mail has lost an entry from Antarctica, so here it is:

After a day of trekking on King George Island and a good look at the 2041 E-Base, we woke this morning (Friday 20th March) on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula in the Weddell Sea. This is a very different world to that experienced only 18 hours earlier. Vast icebergs litter the ocean, with the steel grey colour of the water brought to life by the eerie blue luminescence of the ice just below the surface.

Glacial ice litters the Weddell Sea

Glacial ice litters the Weddell Sea

Not far – in Antarctic terms – south of our current location is the vast Larson B ice-shelf, much of which collapsed into the sea a few years back. Ice shelves do come and go, that is certain, but they seem to be doing more going than coming on the Antarctic Peninsula at the moment. Experienced travellers to this remote continent will confirm that ice debris in the Weddell Sea is at a high and recent research published in Nature earlier this year has presented strong evidence that the Antarctic is now showing a warming trend and that the peninsular is taking the brunt of this.

In the early days of coal mining a canary was used to give early warning of gas build-up and impending doom for the miners if they didn’t change direction. The Arctic canary is long dead and the Antarctic one is looking decidedly wobbly on the perch. How many signals do we need to tell us that we must change the direction of our energy future? (Thanks to Robert Swan for this nice analogy given today in one of his “Leadership on the Edge” talks).

Apart from the icebergs and the calving glaciers, what else did the Antarctic have to offer today – if that wasn’t enough the expedition was captivated by a pod of humpback whales which decided to introduce themselves to the ship this morning. What started as a distant plume sighting – accompanied by a thousand digital images of pretty much empty sea – ended up with whales so close that the people at the bow of the ship were scrambling to attach wide angle lenses to cameras just to be able to fit them in. None of the expedition leaders had ever seen whales so close and even some of our Russian crew came out on deck for a look – and they have supposedly seen it all !!

A humpback whale in the Weddell Sea

A humpback whale in the Weddell Sea

The return

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As we return to Ushuaia, you can follow the progress of the ship by clicking on the IAE 2009 “Current Location” graphic:  

There was movement at the station . . .

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This is not a continent that sits quietly whilst visited. Movement, noise and odour are prominent and all are to be found in abundance in a penguin colony. Many of the colonies have started their journey north, but some remain and we visited one on Sunday (March 22nd) afternoon.

The first sensation that hits the visitor as the rookery nears is the smell. Apart from swimming, eating, breeding and standing with bemused looks, penguins must spend the remainder of their time defecating – and they do it whilst standing which perhaps explains the bemused look. With literally thousands of penguins in a relatively small area, the end result is a rookery knee deep (their knees not mine) in penguin pooh, with a smell to match. But these are creatures that really don’t mind visitors and it isn’t long before they are curiously sidling up to us, just to see what we are about. They are also pretty busy as well, leaping in the water, swimming vigorously, leaping out, offspring chasing parents for food, noisy exchanges and of course the smell – I mentioned that but it deserved a reminder – I got one when I put my jacket on again the next morning and could still detect the odour that had permeated the fabric the day before. Noise and movement in Antarctica isn’t limited to the penguins though – the glaciers add their bit as well.

On Monday we visited Neko Harbour in the morning and Paradise Harbour in the afternoon, both sites of spectacular glaciers nestled between towering peaks and both vigorously calving with bits ranging in size from a small car to a medium sized office block falling into the sea at regular intervals. Each incident is typically preceded by a tremendous crack as the ice splinters followed by the roar of the collapse itself. A miniature tsunami then rushes across the harbour as a result, deluging the shore of the beach opposite. To add to this, the mountains of snow precariously attached to the cliff faces regularly let forth with small avalanches rushing down the slopes. Even the most impatient visitor doesn’t have to wait long to be rewarded with some form of glacial entertainment. The more patient ones will see the spectacular.

 

Our visit to Paradise Harbour was also highlighted by the sighting of several leopard seals and the appearance of the sun in the late afternoon, thereby allowing the harbour to live up to its name. The light here is somehow different to the rest of the world – perhaps it is the clean dry air. Whatever the reason, we were treated to an afternoon display on the glaciers and icebergs which shifted dramatically from moment to moment and left the expedition members with little else to do but look in amazement and bring cameras to the ready. This posting will be sent from our last stop before heading back into Drakes Passage. The satellite system used by 2041 only works with a clear and stable line of sight, but then it effectively delivers broadband speed. All being well I should be in contact again from Ushuaia or Buenos Aires before heading back to London.

Antarctica close up

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Saturday (March 21st) provided two unique opportunities for a close-up, almost hands-on view of this extraordinary continent, its wildlife and the glacial sculptures that encase it from north to south and east to west. We arrived in Wilhelmina Bay (one for the Netherlands) just after breakfast and boarded the Zodiac boats for a two hour exploration (below is the satellite image from Google Earth).

It wasn’t long before we realised that this bay was teaming with life, not just above the surface but lurking below as well. It is one thing to see a humpback whale up close, but quite another to have it surface next to your boat and then dive underneath, with its vast shadowy outline visible in the water beneath you.

Whilst I was captivated by the marine life, I know that I have done a disservice to the vast array of bird life flying in and around the delicate columns of glacial ice that seem to be defying gravity in their bid to remain upright. My colleague in our social performance team in The Hague, who is a dedicated bird watcher, will no doubt be reminding me of this fact when I see him next.

On the subject of glaciers, rather than the birdlife that can be seen around them, words – at least the ones that I can bring to mind – cannot describe the majesty of these towering structures. Even my pictures struggle to capture the grandeur and scale that the visitor experiences in Wilhelmina Bay and much of the rest of the Antarctic Peninsula. On either side of a glacial flow, mountains literally soar out of the sea, reaching heights that repeatedly amaze as the clouds and mist part to reveal craggy peaks that force the neck to strain to see the very top of. No two glaciers are alike and the range of colours on show just within what we call “blue” is surreal. If all this wasn’t enough for one day, we then moved to another bay where the expedition stayed the night ashore. Although we ate on the ship (eating and cooking ashore requires another level of permitting under the Antarctic Treaty), we slept in tents at the base of a glacier with a Weddell seal (or leopard seal – the debate was endless) just metres away, torn between watching us and watching the penguins in hope of a next meal. Some chose to sleep outside the tents, so this meant a vigorous period of wall building for protection against the wind. By nightfall, the small peninsula on which we were sleeping looked sufficiently fortified to take on not just the wind but a small army as well.  Here are some photos:

 

I somehow imagined a cold eerie silence would fill the night, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Every few minutes a boom filled the air as a piece of glacier collapsed into the sea somewhere across the bay. Despite this I slept well, to be awoken at dawn by a chorus of penguins reminding us that they are still here, despite the presence of both an expedition and a hungry seal.  Sadly, many of the remaining penguins in this part of the Antarctic have missed the winter exodus so may well perish in the coming weeks as winter descends on the continent.

Pictures from the journey

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Hope that you enjoy looking at these as much as I enjoyed taking the pictures.

Land ho – first ice

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The crossing to Antarctica has been faster than expected, thanks to extremely good weather and a very able ship. We started sighting seals and penguins in the water shortly after lunch on Wednesday and by mid afternoon the icy cliffs (or cliffs of ice – not sure at a distance) of the South Shetland Islands leapt out of the fog and presented us with our first view of this remote continent. White craggy peaks loomed large in the distance and soon we neared our first stop, the 2041 E-Base on King George Island.

The 2041 E-Base is a permanent fixture on Antarctica, not established by governments with agendas as with most other bases, but by one man and a small team dedicated to the preservation of this continent. It isn’t manned 365 days a year, but as of tomorrow its web-cam and weather data should be live 365 days a year. The base is powered entirely by renewable energy, which is remarkable in such a bleak and inhospitable climate.

Drake’s Passage

We departed Ushuaia on Monday evening for the Drakes Passage crossing to Antarctica. The Akademik Ioffe sailed east through the Beagle Channel amidst a blaze of evening sun streaming through the clouds, highlighting the last of civilization that we would see for 10 days.

Navigating the channel took us through to about midnight from when we were in open sea. Apparently it was calm; at least that is how the experienced expedition leaders describe a two to three metre swell. Still, the Akademik Ioffe took this in its stride and provided a relatively stable crossing. It has a sophisticated stabilization system which shifts the fresh water supply rapidly between tanks to counter the roll induced by the movement of the sea. The end result is a gentle but nevertheless noticeable rocking which has been fine for me but left some of the expedition members feeling somewhat less than ideal. However the turnout for meals has been pretty high so I guess most are OK.

During our passage through the Beagle Channel we all sat through the first instalment of our expedition leader’s story. Robert Swan is the founder of 2041 and can be best described as a courageous modern day explorer. He has trekked to both the North and South Poles on foot and uses his experiences to help people understand the principles and practices of leadership. It turns out that his first expedition to the South Pole in the mid 80’s was in part sponsored by Shell – we supplied the fuel for the ship and oil for the burners used on the walk. But extracting this had been a challenge in itself – Shell had initially declined but was eventually persuaded of the merit of such a gesture by evidence that the company had done the same for Captain Scott, the famous Antarctic explorer, when he first attempted the journey some 70 years earlier. Robert hadn’t taken “no” for an answer and instead had hunted through Scott’s papers in the British Library until he turned up proof of the connection in the form of a picture showing Scott sitting in his Antarctic hut on a drum of “Shell Spirit”.

Apart from good conversations with many of the expedition members and some excellent meals, the highlight of Tuesday was taking endless photographs of the various sea birds following the ship. It was pretty much that or nothing as there is little formal programme during the crossing itself.  Most spectacular are the huge albatross, which seem to effortlessly glide around the ship for hours on end with hardly a flap of their wings.

My “climate change team” met for the first time in the afternoon. This is a group of very knowledgeable people from within the expedition who have been drafted by the 2041 team to help me lead a series of discussions on climate change over the coming ten days. As I mentioned before, this is an issue that is high on almost every participant’s agenda and it simply isn’t going to be possible for me to sit in on every team discussion – so now I have a group of ambassadors to help do that – and very passionate ones at that.

We passed over the Antarctic Convergence at about midnight on Tuesday. This is the point at which the warmer waters – i.e. 10⁰C – of the Southern Ocean give way to the much colder waters of the Antarctic – it also means we are in the Antarctic region – finally.