University of Cambridge

‘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

From ‘Terror’ to ‘Endurance,’ a New Year’s Day expedition for the ages.

On this New Year’s Day, fresh off sea trials, the SA Agulhas II, one of the largest and most modern polar research ships in the world, will quietly weigh anchor and set sail for the Weddell Sea in Antarctica.

As with oceanographer Robert Ballard’s historic search for the Titanic, the mission is two-fold. There’s a main mission — science and research into the real-world effects of our growing climate emergency — and a less publicized but no less worthy mission, to find the remains of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated ship Endurance

It was thought unlikely, if not  impossible, for example, that anyone would find Sir John Franklin’s HMS Terror, which was abandoned to heavy sea ice in the high Arctic — together with Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus —  in Britain’s disastrous the mid-19th century expedition to find a way through Canada’s Northwest Passage.

SA Agulhas II/handout

SA Agulhas II/handout

All 129 men on the Franklin expedition died, making it the worst disaster to strike Britain’s Royal Navy during its long history of polar exploration.

And yet, little more than two years ago, a diving team on the non-profit Arctic Research Foundation’s research ship Martin Bergmann found the Terror in virtually pristine condition, its three masts broken but still standing, at the bottom of the aptly named — and previously uncharted — Terror Bay, just south of Victoria Strait, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. 

Nearly a century later, the Irish-born polar explorer Ernest Shackleton found himself mired in similar circumstances on the other side of the world — literally — when his ship Endurance became  trapped in sea ice during an attempt to make the frist land crossing of the Antarctic continent.

Endurance was slowly crushed in the thickening ice; the crew escaped certain death by camping on the sea ice until it, too, disintegrated.

Unlike Franklin, however, Shackleton managed to lead much of his crew to safety and eventual rescue, by sailing 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) from the Antarctic to South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic in a seven-metre (23 feet) lifeboat, in one of the great tales of survival in maritime history.



Fast-forward to Jan. 1, 2019, and the SA Agulhas II is about to set sail on a 45-day scientific expedition deep into those areas of the Weddell Sea that are still covered in ice, despite it being the height of the Antarctic summer.

The Agulhas crew will study the effects of climate change and global warming. 

In July, 2017, a giant iceberg twice the size of Luxembourg  — or four times the size of Greater London, if you prefer — calved off the Larsen C ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsular, the northernmost arm of Antarctica and a hotspot for research because its retreating glaciers are a significant contributor to the global rise in sea levels.

The expedition includes more than 30 international scientists in numerous different fields. The 13,500-tonne, 135-metre (450 feet) icebreaker  Agulhas is equipped with drones, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) and deep-diving Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) for collecting data well below the sea’s surface.

National Maritime Museum/archives  - Photo by Frank Hurley

National Maritime Museum/archives - Photo by Frank Hurley

The Endurance is there, just waiting to be found, as the 2016 discovery of Terror proved.

The bigger picture though, appropriate to the increasingly heated conversation about climate change due in the coming year, is all this melting ice — in both polar regions — and what it means to the planet’s future, in both the medium and long term.

As Martin Siegert, professor of geosciences at Imperial College London told The Guardian just days after the iceberg A68 calved off the Larsen C ice shelf in July, 2017, “There is enough ice in Antarctica that if it all melted, or even just flowed into the ocean, sea levels [would] rise by 60 metres.”

Of course, as the Shackleton expedition proved — not to mention the disastrous Robert Falcon Scott “Scott of the Antarctic” expedition just three years earlier, Antarctica has a way of dashing the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

“Antarctica is a place of extremes,” John Dowdeswell, director of Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute and the Weddell Sea expedition’s chief scientist, told Guardian science editor Ian Sample just days ago.

“But if we are that close to one of the most iconic vessels in polar exploration, we have got to go and look for it.”


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.

What if Indiana Jones was wrong? Scientists debate recent fossil findings.

Two recent fossil discoveries have prompted a radical change of thinking in scientific circles. That’s the fast headline, anyway. A closer examination of subsequent controversies — not every scientist holds the findings in the same esteem — suggests that, unlike say mathematics or physics, palaeontology is open to different interpretations. Nothing is exact. And that opens a whole other can of worms, metaphorically speaking: We may never know the answer to the big questions.

This past week, the journal Nature reported that a cat-sized fossil discovered in Scotland  ( could be the prime candidateas our common dinosaur ancestor. If true, that would fly in the face of a century of dinosaur classification.

Weeks earlier, fossilized remains discovered on the Hudson Bay coast of Quebec were judged to be the earliest findings of their kind ever found — proof, in other words, that life on Earth has been around a lot longer than anyone realized and that, furthermore, evolution happened in the blink of an eye.

A blink of an eye is about as long as it took for the doubters to weigh in — in part because no one, not the least palaeontologists who’ve devoted their entire careers to studying dinosaurs’ family tree, wants to be told that some of their most cherished beliefs about evolutionary history are dead wrong.

Huge plant-eating sauropods like the Brontosaurus have traditionally been classified with meat-eating theropods like the infamous Tyrannosaurus Rex, even though there are key skeletal differences between the two groups — itself a sign that the entire classification system may be flawed.

©Field Museum, Chicago

©Field Museum, Chicago

The doubters are determined to have their say, though. The experts are divided, as the old expression goes.

The Scottish findings, these doubters say, amount to little more than fake news — at best an overreaction motivated by good but wrong-headed intentions, at worst a thinly disguised ploy to grab easy headlines and boost burgeoning careers.

The latest findings that the Scottish big-cat-sized creature, Saltopus, is the closest to what our hypothetical common ancestor might have looked like, are themselves little more than hypothesis, according to Max Langer, a palaeontologist at the University of Säo Paulo in Brazil who is widely considered to be one of the world’s leading authorities on dinosaur research.

At stake is the traditionally accepted notion that the oldest, most revealing fossils are to be found in the Southern Hemisphere, not the the Northern.

Matt Baron, a graduate student at Cambridge University who led the three-year dino project in the UK, said that while it will never be possible to pinpoint the origin of dinosaurs with any degree of certainty, his findings have raised new questions about the Northern Hemisphere possibly being the origin of humankind’s dinosaur ancestors.

“It may just be that dinosaurs originated in Scotland,” he told The Guardian newspaper.

Without getting too complicated about it — the earlier Quebec findings, for example, hint that life may have originated long before the break-up of the continents into northern and southern hemispheres, as depicted in Scottish geologist Iain Stewart’s 2011 BBC documentary series Rise of the Continents

(Recommended viewing, by the way; Stewart is the David Attenborough of geological filmmaking and a respected evolutionary thinker in his own right.)

For many palaeontologists, the idea that dinosaurs may have originated in Scotland has about as much veracity as the notion that Nessie is out their in Loch Ness somewhere, still terrorizing locals in small boats. 

Baron’s findings, coupled with similar studies sponsored by London’s Natural History Museum, suggests that scientists’ classification of dinosaur ancestors into two specific groups — a belief held since the 1880s — may need a major rethink. There are also suggestions that many of the earliest dinosaurs may have had feathers as well as scales, and that the original precursor of today’s mammals may have been an omnivore, not a carnivore.

©Iain Stewart, BBC

©Iain Stewart, BBC

Baron told The Guardian that he did not come by his conclusions lightly.

“We didn’t want to be these palaeontologists who told the world that Diplodocus and Brontosaurus weren’t dinosaurs,” he said. “We’d be like the guys who said Pluto isn’t a planet.”

For a more clinical take, follow the link to an informative piece by science writer Evan Gough at Universe Today: