climate science

‘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

‘The sheer size of what we were looking at took our breath away.’ Now for the hard part — keeping it that way.

Hearing of that super-colony of Antarctic penguins spotted from space, I immediately thought about The Lost World.

Not the part about how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s band of Victorian explorers discovered a lost world of dinosaurs and early humans hidden on a towering mountain plateau in the jungles of Venezuela, but rather the part about how, having stumbled over a find of extraordinary and rare beauty, they weighed whether or not to tell the outside world.

Late last week, the journal Scientific Reports announced the discovery of a previously unknown “super-colony” of Adélie penguins in the east Antarctic peninsular.

The find was dramatic, the “how” somewhat less so.

The colony numbers more than 1.5 million birds, a sizeable number by any reckoning, but especially in the facts-challenged world of 2018.

The penguins were spotted living among and around a rocky archipelago in east Antarctica known as the Danger Islands — aptly named, as it turns out — after gargantuan  patches of their guano appeared in images taken by the US Landsat satellite.

This was one satellite picture of the polar regions that wasn’t all about the melting ice cap. For that reason alone, it immediately caused a stir.

©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

Researchers used a computer algorithm to scan images for signs of possible penguin activity. The scientists were genuinely surprised by the scale of their find, as University of Oxford researcher and science team-member Dr. Tom Hart told BBC News.

“It’s a classic case of finding something where no one really looked,” Hart told BBC. “The Danger Islands are hard to reach, so people didn’t really try that hard.”

As Heather Lynch, a researcher with Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York, told BBC.

“The sheer size of what we were looking at took our breath away,” she said. “We thought, ‘Wow, if what we’re seeing is true, these are going to be some of the largest Adélie penguin colonies in the world, and it’s going to be well worth our while sending in an expedition to count them properly.’”

©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

Knowing how many penguins there are is one thing.

Ensuring their survival for future generations — future generations of people, as well as penguins — is another entirely.

The discovery will only truly mean something if a long-proposed marine protected area is signed into international law, a super-protected area, if you will, for the super-colony of penguins, and other Antarctic species.

It’s a big deal because, continent-wide, Adélie penguin populations have fallen by more than 65% in just the past 25 years, according to some estimates.

Just in the last seven years, thousands of chicks died in an unexplained mass die-off of chicks and stillbirths in the west Antarctic peninsular.

Some conservationists are concerned that the discovery will lead people to think that the Antarctic isn’t in so much trouble, after all.

To most people’s minds, endangered animals are either endangered or they aren’t. Mid- and long-term factors like habitat loss caused by climate change, which manifests itself in the form of warmer, more acidic waters, loss of sea ice and mass die-offs of krill, plankton and other micro-organisms that underpin the entire ecosystem, are harder to weigh in the mind than waking up one morning to learn that all the penguins have suddenly disappeared.

The Danger Islands lie in an area of the Weddell Sea that has yet to feel the effects of climate change the way other parts of Antarctica have.

©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

That doesn’t mean the Adélie penguins, all 1.5 million of them, are out of danger, though.

As conservation writer Lucy Siegle noted this past weekend in the UK Sunday Observer,  “Enthusiasm for this (discovery) needs to translate into a legally enforceable marine protected area, so that the penguins, left undisturbed for 60 years, remain that way.”

It was Einstein, after all, who said that whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.

‘It’s amazing’ — how new NASA time-lapse video shows the Earth breathing.

Time-lapse videos are a dime a dozen these days, or so it seems. It takes a lot for one to stand out.

That’s why NASA’s video, released earlier this week, of how the Earth has changed over the past 20 years, was so stunning. It makes it look almost as though Earth is breathing. The implication is that our home planet is a living being, both beautiful and fragile.

Naturally, climate-science deniers have taken to message boards — on YouTube and elsewhere — accusing NASA of playing to the climate-change crowd, but anyone with a sense of wonder can’t help but be moved by what they see.

NASA scientists created the time-lapse video from data recorded by satellites orbiting the Earth, and shows how life has changed during a time of great social, economic and geopolitical upheaval. The “breathing” effect is caused by repetition of the seasons, as they change throughout each year.



The colour green represents life on land. Turquoise represents microscopic organisms in the ocean. And white represents winter snows followed by spring thaws. Heat moves around the planet, sea ice grows and shrinks, and vegetation blooms and recedes, changing with the seasons.

That may seem obvious, even to climate-science deniers, but what lends the time-lapse video scientific weight is that it reveals the behaviour of oceans and land simultaneously, over two decades.

“We’ve never had date like this before,” NASA earth scientist Compton Tucker said in a video statement. “Half of all photosynthesis occurs in the oceans, and the other half on land. Having these data to show both at the same time — day after day, month after monthly, year after year, for 20 years — is a great tool to study life on Earth.”

Researchers can both monitor ocean and forest heath, and track conditions in fisheries and agriculture at the same time, to see if there are any connections.



“You can see greening of the Arctic,” NASA oceanographer Jeremy Werdell added, in a video statement from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “You can see earlier summers, later winters. The view from space has opened our eyes to many different things.”

The project was designed in part to measure the environmental contrasts between El Nino and La Nina, when tropical ocean temperatures in the Pacific shift from being warmer than average to cooler.

Those shifts have far-reaching implications on climate patterns throughout the planet, from severe droughts in California and the Pacific Northwest to more volatile monsoons in South Asia and disruptive rain patterns in food-producing regions as far away as the Horn of Africa.

As with all science, small details play a large role in shaping the big picture. The time-lapse video shows, for example, how phytoplankton growth in the oceans can have a dramatic impact on dry land. The satellites found plankton blooming in ocean regions previously thought to be devoid of life. 



The Sea-Viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor (SeaWiFS), as it’s known officially, was launched in 1997, and spent the next decades and more looking down on us from orbit 700 kilometres (about 435 miles) overhead. The satellite’s original purpose was to collect data on the bio-optical properties of the Earth’s land masses and oceans, but it also watched the Blue Planet’s living colours change with the seasons — hence the time-lapse video released for public view.

Past is prologue. For researchers, long-term trends in the past help provide a glimpse of things to come in the near future. Satellite data is used to monitor the health of agricultural crops, rainforests and ocean fisheries around the world, with a mind to hopefully being able to forecast future disasters.

The difference between now and 1997, when the SeaWiFS satellite was launched, is that technology has advanced to the point where sensors can pick up the finer details at wavelengths that can reveal what’s going on at a chemical level. Changes in the light  reflected from plants, for example, can reveal the exact moment when photosynthesis is converting carbon dioxide and water into sugars.



Climate change isn’t just about receding polar ice caps: The NASA survey has also revealed the expansion of so-called “biological deserts,” uninhabitable regions that have grown markedly in the past two decades.

Meanwhile, green shrubs are expanding their reach into areas once believed to be too cold to sustain life.

“The ability to expand your senses into space,” Werdell said, “compress time; watch visualizations like these; see how the ecosystems of land, sea, atmosphere and ice all interact; and then be able to rewind it and watch it again and again — it’s amazing.”