Paris Climate Agreement

‘So near and yet so far’— Weddell Sea Expedition succeeded at climate readings but failed to find Shackleton’s ‘Endurance.’

“The search for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship Endurance has been called off after extreme weather trapped an underwater vehicle under a sheet of ice.”

                                — Thu 14 Feb 2019 18.42 GMT

In the end, it wasn’t climate change but rather weather that proved the difference. The Weddell Sea Expedition’s attempt to find what remains of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s missing ship Endurance was scuttled after rapidly advancing sea ice trapped a submersible ROV expedition members were using to search the seabed floor beneath Antarctica’s beleaguered sea ice. The remote-operated submersible was lost to the deep, in what some might say was a fitting and somehow appropriate denouement to a brave but ultimately futile effort to use 21st century technology to unravel a mystery that has posed questions ever since the Endurance was itself trapped in sea ice and sank beneath the surface on the 21st of November, 1915.

©Frank Hurley/Royal Geographical Society

©Frank Hurley/Royal Geographical Society

Despite February being the height of the Antarctic summer and seemingly favourable conditions at first, coupled with 21st-century GPS readings based on the immaculate charts and maps provided by Endurance’s navigator, the two dozen geoscientists aboard the Dutch icebreaker and research vessel  SA Agulhas II knew when they had been beaten. Without their remote-operated  submersible submarine, they’d be working blind. And even someone with a rudimentary knowledge of conditions in Antarctica would know that “blind” is not how you want to operate in the most extreme — and potentially deadly — environment on planet Earth. No one — literally, no one — alive today would’ve been more aware of the potential for disaster. Shackleton and his crew were forced to give up the ghost in 1915, despite having survived much of the polar winter when frozen ice floes crushed their ship’s hull. Their subsequent escape from the Antarctic sea ice on foot and in lifeboats is one of the great stories of human resilience and endurance in recorded history. The lure of finding what remains of Endurance has captivated maritime historians, geographers and romantics for more than a century.

“We’re disappointed, clearly, as a team not to have been successful,” Mensun Bound, the expedition’s director of exploration, said in a statement. “Like Shackleton before us, who described Endurance’s graveyard as ‘the worst portion of the worst sea in the world,’ our well-laid plans wee overcome by rapidly moving ice and what Shackleton himself called ‘the evil conditions of the Weddell Sea.’

“We hope our adventure will have engaged young people about the pioneering spirit, courage and fortitude of those who sailed with Endurance to Antarctica.”

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

Where Shackleton had to rely on hand-drawn charts based on meticulous longitude and latitude readings, the 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition was decidedly high-tech. The submersible, an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, or AUV, was designed to map a wide electronic grid of the sea floor below frigid waters more than 3,000m (9,800 feet) deep using HD still colour cameras.

The expedition is not considered a failure, however, as its main mission — completed before the crew’s attention turned to finding Endurance — was to study the effects of climate change and melting sea ice along the nearby Larsen C Ice Shelf, which famously “calved” a monster iceberg and later dubbed A-68, twice the size of Luxembourg, in July, 2017. Strangely, even given the remote location of Endurance’s watery grave, no team of scientists had examined the continuing erosion of the Larsen C ice shelf in person until the SA Agulhas ventured deep into the Weddell Sea this past January. Satellite imagery can only tell so much. Part of the expedition’s mission was to take actual physical samples of the ice and measure carbon readings and other scientific date that may be locked inside.

Expedition geoscientists, including polar geographers, geologists, oceanographers and climate scientists, pointed out just last week that their findings have already enhanced our knowledge of Antarctica’s delicate ecosystems, not to mention the oceans that surround the Southern Continent on all four sides.

The Weddell Sea Expedition was never going to solve the world’s climate crisis, of course.

Thanks to the incalculable value of the retrieved and recorded data, though, scientists now have a better understanding of what exactly’s going on. Good thing, too. The future of humanity may well depend on it, if not the future of the entire planet.

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

Simplicity sells: Staying on message in the fight to save the planet.

‘Sex sells,’ used to be the old saying, but today that saying could just as easily be, ‘Simplicity sells.’

The message of conservation can too easily be obscured in a blizzard of statistics, climate models and scientific jargon.

Today, Thursday, April 12th, the Cambridge Conservation Initiative hosts a panel discussion and international symposium — to be streamed live and archived for posterity on YouTube — titled, “Setting a New Post-2020 Biodiversity Agenda: The Communications Challenge.”

The Cambridge Conservation Initiative is a collaboration between 10 different institutions. The initiative’s bricks-and-mortar headquarters is in the new Sir David Attenborough building at the University of Cambridge, recently granted $10m USD in funding from the charitable fund Arcadia — funding that will assure the group’s future, at least for the time being, unlike the increasingly vulnerable environment the Conservation Initiative seeks to protect.

The world hardly needs a history lesson now, but it’s worth remembering that as recently as 2015, 196 countries signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement — the result, most people with working brains understand, of a message that resonated across different cultural and political boundaries, underscored by a willingness to work together, in harmony, in pursuit of a cause higher than themselves.

“There now needs to be a similar movement and momentum focused on biodiversity,” according to the symposium’s official notes. “As with the Paris Agreement, the landscape around the development of a new biodiversity strategy is extremely congested and not always coherent: there are many players, many audiences and many complex and in some case, contested messages.”

Or, put more simply: “It’s complicated. But we’re not going to get anywhere without talking to each other in terms we can all understand.”

©Deep Ghotane/Pixabay

©Deep Ghotane/Pixabay

No matter the cause, scientific jargon often does more harm than good, especially among the unconverted.

A line like, “Lessons from the Paris Agreement illustrate how critical it will be to distil this complexity into messages that resonate with decision-makers,” is a turn-off if ever there was one — especially if the idea is to reach Trump voters (or Viktor Orbán voters, if you happen to live near Hungary) and not just Cambridge academics, keyboard warriors and enviro-crusaders who already know the difference between climate and weather.

Instead, how about, “The Paris Agreement teaches us that, if we want to get something done, we need to talk to each other in ways that are both respectful and considered ahead of time, with specific examples backed up by facts and not just opinion — you know, kind of like the way science works.”

While I might prefer, “A Post-2020 Biodiversity Agenda: Wake the Fuck Up, People,” communications consultants might blanch at the choice of words. It’s hard to imagine the rector of St. John’s College at Cambridge, for example, signing off on such a symposium

“Communication” is the key word here, though, and the great, edifying gift Sir David Attenborough has given the world is not his almost childlike enthusiasm, even at age 91, and undying curiosity of the natural world and everything that makes it tick, but his gift of communication — his ability to take the most complex subjects, even those that are ethically and biologically controversial, and touch people’s minds and hearts the world over, regardless of creed, region or religion.

©BBC NHU/Gavin Thurston

©BBC NHU/Gavin Thurston

Not once, in his seven decades of communicating his sense of wonder and admiration for the natural world, has Attenborough talked down to his audience, or even across to his audience. His unique, almost eerie ability to talk with his audience might well be the one thing the scientific world misses most when he finally calls it a day, or fate finally catches up with him.

(This past weekend, the English tabloids had a bit of fun with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II — also aged 91 — escorting Sir David around her gardens for a new film documentary, The Queen’s Green Planet, which will premiere in the UK next Monday on ITV1. 

Asked by reporters how two nonagenarians are still going strong, still fighting for the planet, Attenborough replied, “We must be very lucky in our constitutions — there are very many virtuous people I can think of who can’t walk at all at my age, so it’s a matter of luck, isn’t it?”)

Attenborough has been raging against the dying of the light more often of late, and not just because his Blue Planet II documentary drew near record audiences to their TVs earlier this year.

In an article he penned for this month’s issue of New Scientist, Attenborough urged people to recognize the effect of “The Plastic Age” and the impact of unchecked population growth on the natural world. Recent scientific surveys — including one this past week from Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) — have cited the world’s human population as a key factor in biodiversity loss.

More than three times as many people are living on the planet today than in 1950, Attenborough wrote in New Scientist.

“They all need places to live and roads for their cars and hospitals and schools and places to grow food. . . . In the most part, it is going to come from the natural world, so the natural world is steadily being impoverished.”

Simplicity sells. And Attenborough’s message is simple enough that almost anyone can understand it.

“The situation is becoming more and more dreadful, and still our population continues to increase,” he wrote. “It’s about time that the human population of the world came to its senses and saw what we are doing — and did something about it.”

Easier said than done, yes. A simple message is a start, though.