“The Antarctic Factor: if anything can go wrong, it will. It's basically Murphy's Law on steroids…” —Chris Turney
On Christmas Eve 2013, off the coast of East Antarctica, an abrupt weather change trapped the Shokalskiy— the ship carrying earth scientist Chris Turney and seventy-one others involved in the Australasian Antarctic Expedition—in a densely packed armada of sea ice, 1400 miles from civilization. With the ship's hull breached and steerage lost, the wind threatened to drive the vessel into the frozen continent, smashing it to pieces. If nearby floating icebergs picked up speed, they could cause a devastating collision, leaving little time to abandon ship and potentially creating an environmental disaster. The forecast offered no relief—a blizzard was headed their way.
As Turney chronicles his modern-day ordeal, he revisits famed polar explorer Ernest Shackleton's harrowing Antarctic expedition almost a century prior. His ship, Endurance, was trapped and ultimately lost to the ice, forcing Shackleton and his men to fight for survival on a vast and treacherous icescape for two years. Turney also draws inspiration from Douglas Mawson, whose Antarctic explorations were equally legendary. But for Turney the stakes were even higher— for unlike Shackleton or Mawson, he had his wife and children with him.
Yet there was another key difference: Shackleton and Mawson were completely cut off; Turney’s expedition was connected to the outside world through Twitter, YouTube, and Skype. Within hours, the team became the focus of a media storm, and an international rescue effort was launched to reach the stranded ship. But could help arrive in time to avert a tragedy?
A taut 21st-century survival story, Iced In is also an homage to Shackleton, Mawson, and other scientific explorers who embody the human spirit of adventure, joy in discovery, and will to live.
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The Big Picture
Late January 2013, I was pacing outside my home, the warmth of the Australian summer sun beating down on my face. It was a glorious day, perfect for the beach. Hordes of Sydneysiders had driven the hour down the coast to Austinmer. After parking along the street, young and old struggled by our house under bright mountains of towels, buckets, spades, and inflatables, eager to stake their claim in the sand. Some gave me a glance as they passed by, hearing me speaking loudly into a phone the size of a brick. I couldn't help but wish I were joining them.
I was starting to lose patience. I'd been cut off three times already. The thermometer was hitting over 100 F, and I wanted to get in the sea and cool off.
Things weren't helped by the howling blizzard at the other end of the phone line.
Finally, I got a decent connection. "Chris? Chris? Can you hear me? Annette's had a brilliant idea for our expedition."
I was speaking to my friend and fellow scientist, Chris Fogwill. Chris and I have been mates for years, built on a mutual love of the outdoors. We met in the U.K. when we were appointed to the same university to teach Earth sciences. In years gone by, we might have been described as geologists or environmental scientists, but it's both these and more. Earth science takes a complete view of our planet; it pulls together different disciplines to try to get a better understanding of how our world works. Earth science isn't just interested in what's below our feet and why it's there, but looks at how geology, the air, oceans, ice and life itself are all connected. How quickly do melting ice sheets raise sea level? What impact do volcanic eruptions have on the carbon cycle? If the planet's wind belts get stronger, what happens to the ocean currents? Earth science makes links and answers questions that a single discipline struggles to tackle.
Both Chris and I soon realized we had a shared passion for using our planet's history to improve predictions of future climate; something that's badly hindered by the century-long weather-station records that fail to capture the changes we're likely to face in the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, Nature rarely provides easy-to-find clues for what happened before scientific observations began. You need to know where to look. Our short field trips turned into large expeditions as we worked around the world with friends, digging into peat bogs, probing lake sediments, coring trees and drilling ice, searching for evidence of past change. As we delved deeper, we started to piece together a picture of a planet with a tumultuous past that is rarely, if ever, stable — where wild swings in climate can happen in a geological blink of an eye. At a time of such massive environmental change that a new geological epoch — the "Anthropocene" or Human Age — is being considered seriously by world scientists, such insights are crucial.
In 2010, I was offered the job of a lifetime: an Australian Laureate Fellowship, one of the most prestigious scientific positions available. I was granted five years of funding to host a research team at the University of New South Wales to focus on these wild swings in climate and what they might mean for the future. It was the position I had always dreamed of. And at thirty-six years of age, I was one of the youngest to ever be awarded a Laureate. I couldn't say no. I left the U.K. and managed to convince Chris to join me.
Chris is a brilliant scientist. A world leader in glaciology with over ten years' field experience in Antarctica, he can read the landscape like no one else I've worked with. Chris also has an unerring understanding of what gear a team in the field needs and how to use it. No matter what the terrain, Chris will know what and how much kit we have to get and where to get it. What Chris doesn't know isn't worth knowing.
Six weeks before my call to Chris we'd been working in the Antarctic and had returned home just in time for Christmas. But one of our New Zealand colleagues had been expecting his first child and needed someone to take his place on an expedition departing in the New Year. Chris couldn't resist the opportunity. Now he was holed up in a small pyramid tent in the Transantarctic Mountains with three other guys. Tragically, a plane had just disappeared near their field site and all available aircraft were searching in the vain hope they'd find survivors. Chris was patiently waiting for a helicopter pickup, but the weather had taken a turn for the worse: a blizzard was blowing and everyone was grounded. I was forced to shout down the line to be heard above howling winds and flapping tent sheets.
There really is nowhere bigger or more exciting for an Earth scientist than Antarctica. Lurking in the shadows like a disruptive neighbor, it does its own thing, whatever the consequences to anyone else. Antarctica's been implicated in some of the most extreme and abrupt environmental changes our planet has ever experienced. Catastrophic sea-level rise, massive temperature swings and abrupt shifts in tropical rain belts have all been linked to the southern continent. The challenge is getting there to find the clinching evidence.
Most researchers head to the Antarctic on a government ship, but that's easier said than done. Although there are more than thirty research bases across the region, berths on supply ships and aircraft are fiercely fought over for years in advance. If you're lucky — really lucky — you may get two or three of your team on board. If by some miracle you manage to get a large group south for the whole season, forget about them working anywhere that's not near a national base without years of lead time; the cost of operating in the Antarctic is so high, scientists are encouraged to work as close as possible to a research station. The problem is that with a changing planet, the science questions have changed since the first bases were put up over half a century ago. For the last year, we'd been working on an intoxicating solution: Charter our own vessel and take our own team of scientists to a region where big changes are afoot. It was something that hadn't been attempted for decades.
Before government funding became the main source of support for scientists after the Second World War, most researchers were heavily dependent on finding wealthy benefactors and businesses to finance their work. In Antarctica, the hurdles were even greater. It is a vast expanse of unknown with little, if any, prospect of help if things went wrong. As a result, the cost of kitting out, transporting, and supporting a twenty-plus team of scientists, engineers, cooks, medics, and photographers across the perilous Southern Ocean and off the map for a year or more would have run into the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars today. With national governments hesitant to underwrite what would most likely be a costly affair, many explorer-scientists looked to other means. One of the great early twentieth-century pioneers in this regard was the irrepressible Ernest Shackleton, determined to stake his claim in the history books. Blending a heady mix of adventure, exploration, science, and opportunism, Shackleton sold the idea of Antarctica to whoever would listen. It could be whatever you wanted: your name on the map, a territorial claim, a place on the expedition, a scientific study. Any and all were available to those who had money. Shackleton was the finest leader Antarctica ever saw, inspiring future generations of scientists and adventurers alike.
If Chris and I were going to attempt anything like Shackleton, we'd have to recreate some of the excitement he generated a century ago. A return to some of his best-known stomping grounds was out of the question though. The Ross Sea and geographic South Pole are home to large research bases today, but they don't have the combination of past and modern environmental changes we were after. We'd looked at other possibilities: Coats Land, Enderby Land, Wilkes Land — remote parts of the Antarctic that were the target of Shackleton and his contemporaries and are largely forgotten or ignored by government operators today. Unfortunately, none seemed to fit the bill. If we were to raise the estimated $1.5 million needed to bankroll a six-week expedition to such a remote part of the world, our destination also had to capture the public's imagination. We had to have the right blend of science, adventure, and history.
With Chris away in the field, Annette and I had been bouncing ideas, and a magical name had come up.
"How about Cape Denison?"
There was a moment's delay as the satellite hook-up relayed my message.
Cape Denison holds a special place in the history of Antarctic exploration. A small outcrop of rocks on the East Antarctic coastline, it is forever associated with one of the most spectacular and often forgotten tales of survival. A century ago, it was the main base of operations for one of the great explorers of the south, trained and mentored by Shackleton himself: the Australian scientist Douglas Mawson. His privately funded science team, with three bases and one research ship, explored a region the size of the United States between 1911 and 1914. Mawson's Australasian Antarctic Expedition team had intended to spend just one year south, but it was not to be. A sudden turn of events led to tragedy on the ice, the deaths of two men, allegations of cannibalism, and, with the return of winter sea ice, an extended stay in Antarctica.
Since Mawson's time, scientists had only infrequently visited Cape Denison. After 2010, these visits all but ceased with the arrival of giant iceberg B09B, which lodged itself on the seabed of the adjacent Commonwealth Bay. The appearance of this monster has dramatically altered the coastline by preventing the summer breakout of sea ice formed in the bay, isolating Cape Denison from the rest of the world. How long B09B will remain in place is uncertain, with suggestions ranging from just a few years to centuries. But more important, no one is sure what impact the massive expansion of sea ice is having on the area. Some scientists have argued that the local penguin population may have collapsed because of the greater distance they have to travel for food. Other studies suggest the extra sea ice could have stopped the formation of salty, dense waters that are a fundamental part of the global ocean circulation system. Paradoxically, the shutdown of what's known as Antarctic Bottom Water may also be allowing warm ocean water to reach the edge of the Antarctic continent deep below, melting the fringing ice sheet under the surface with worrying consequences for sea level. Cape Denison is a place where there's a dizzying number of questions any scientist worth their salt would be itching to tackle.
"Oh, my God, that's genius. It completely fits the bill."
Over the next twenty minutes, we excitedly sketched out a science program. As the procession continued past to the beach in the January heat, Chris and I had the making of our enterprise: The Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013–2014.
Shackleton described the magnetism of Antarctica as being "drawn away from the trodden paths by the 'lure of the little voices,' the mysterious fascination of the unknown." It gets under your skin like nowhere else on Earth. For a scientist, the unknown is a particularly powerful draw. There are so many questions to be answered, so much to learn. At the turn of the twentieth century, Shackleton and Mawson asked what lay south and how this fitted into what was known of more equable climes. After a century of expeditions, the science questions today are no less profound.
With only 2 percent of the continent exposed as rock, the Antarctic holds around 90 percent of our planet's ice and 70 percent of its freshwater. There's so much water that if all the ice melted we would be left with a large landmass in the East Antarctic, an archipelago of mountains where the West and Peninsula were, and global sea levels nearly 200 feet higher, flooding the likes of Dhaka, New York, Sydney, and London. Where, when, and how much of the Antarctic ice sheets will melt in a warmer world is a major focus of research. Offshore, the surrounding Southern Ocean supports hugely productive ecosystems, many of them economically important, including the krill and Patagonian toothfish fisheries. These ecosystems also play a crucial role in soaking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and regulating climate. Just how the ocean, atmosphere, and ice interact to influence the world's climate is hugely uncertain. The Antarctic makes up 7 percent of our planet's surface, yet there have never been enough scientists to tackle it.
As a Laureate Fellow, I was determined to make a contribution to the effort. I wanted to learn just how quickly the Antarctic ice sheets could melt. I had recently published a research paper that suggested stronger winds in the mid-latitudes may have changed how the ocean currents circulate around the continent during periods of high global temperatures. One possibility is that past wind shifts may have brought warmer waters up alongside the edge of the ice sheet, raising sea levels more than twenty feet higher than they are today. But did the Antarctic ice sheets collapse in the past? Chris and I had ideas about where we might look to find out.
In the southern summer of 2010, we had flown out from Chile with a private company known as Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions for a four-week season in West Antarctica. We left the small frontier city of Punta Arenas in a balmy 60 F. The sky was overcast, damp, almost oppressive. I was excited but nervous. I had spent several months training for this. As a university student, I'd been in the Territorial Army, including a full month of military exercises alongside U.S. troops under the blistering North Carolina sun at Fort Bragg, but I had never been as fit as I was now. Uncertain of what I might face, I had diligently run six miles a day, climbed once a week, trained for crevasse falls and even learned a multitude of knots. Now it was real. We were going to Antarctica and there wasn't much else I could do apart from keep my wits about me. The aircraft — a converted Soviet transporter that shared more similarities with a rocket than a plane — did not allay my nervousness. We hurtled through the sky at 30,000 feet, the deafening roar from the engines making conversation with Chris or anyone else nigh on impossible. Keen to get my bearings, I made my way up to the front of the cabin. I poured myself a cup of coffee from an urn and, sipping the hot fluid, peered out through the Plexiglas window on the port side of the plane. All I could see through the banks of cloud below were large slabs of sea ice that stretched beyond the horizon. There was no land in sight. It was the farthest I had ever been from civilization.
Four and a half hours after we left Chile we landed in the Ellsworth Mountains. The contrast to damp Punta Arenas couldn't have been greater: blinding sunshine, a frigid 14 F wind, and a vista that took my breath away. The rugged, snow-draped mountains pierced the sky, the deeply gorged valleys proclaiming the sculpting power of ice over millions of years. As we gingerly stepped onto the blue-ice runway, we were greeted by welcoming smiles that were the warmest thing around for a thousand miles.
The Antarctic challenges everything you've learned in the north; every idea you thought you had about the world has to be chucked out and reconsidered. This is an environment where life exists in extraordinarily low temperatures, where snow falls under clear blue skies, and where hurricane-force winds can strike at any moment. The intellectual thrill of discovering and interpreting an entirely new landscape among like-minded expeditioners and adventurers was an exhilarating experience. I immediately became besotted with the place. I never felt so alive; my senses went into overdrive. Everything was new: working, eating, cleaning (sometimes), and sleeping; all in twenty-four hours of brilliant, mesmerising daylight. My appetite became insatiable as I adapted to an environment completely different to anywhere else I had ever been.
Set in a region that drains 22 percent of all ice from the Antarctic continent, the Ellsworth Mountains offered an ideal location to find out what happened to the ice sheets in the past. During our month-long stay, Chris and I climbed mountains, sampled rocks, navigated glaciers and crevasses, dug snow and ice trenches, all to get precious snapshots of how the Antarctic had changed through time. On our return home, we compared our fieldwork results with computer-model simulations of Antarctica's climate and ice sheets over millennia. There had indeed been massive changes in the height of the ice sheet around the Ellsworth Mountains, but we could see that this was only part of the story. The models suggested that some of the greatest changes had been over on the other side of the continent, far out to the east.
Excerpted from "Iced In"
Copyright © 2017 Chris Turney.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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Table of Contents
PART I - Heading South,
CHAPTER ONE - The Big Picture,
CHAPTER TWO - A Step into the Unknown,
CHAPTER THREE - The Furious Fifties,
CHAPTER FOUR - There Be Dragons,
CHAPTER FIVE - Off the Map,
CHAPTER SIX - In Adélie Land,
PART II - Trapped,
CHAPTER SEVEN - An Armada of Ice,
CHAPTER EIGHT - A Christmas to Remember,
CHAPTER NINE - The Home of the Blizzard,
CHAPTER TEN - Frustration,
CHAPTER ELEVEN - Teamwork,
CHAPTER TWELVE - Keeping It Together,
CHAPTER THIRTEEN - Escape from the Ice,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,
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