Thoughts, rants and musings about absolutely everything except photography. Or cats.


The Aurora Programme saga: Part 2

Into the ice

in Antarctica , Thursday, January 16, 2014

This article is the second in a 4-part series about the Aurora Programme, a privately-funded expedition to Antarctic which took place in the 1991-1992 austral summer/autumn. Read Part 1 here.

Towards the end of December, the MV Aurora reached the edge of the sea ice, around 25°W and about 100km off the coast of Coats Land. The plan was to get as close as possible to the coast and then work south west to approach the Filchner Ice Shelf.  Somewhere along the way we hoped to find an area of fast ice where the ship could moor, be unloaded, and where we could rendezvous with the GLACE Twin Otter aircraft that would support the field parties. Also, a base was to be built using four pre-fabricated huts, designed to endure for at least the planned three years of the Aurora Programme.  The route we were following was very similar to that taken by Shackleton’s Endurance in 1913, and just like the Endurance, the Aurora ended up stuck fast in the sea ice, a couple of days after Christmas. For the first time since leaving Montevideo, the propellor stopped turning and we could get some sleep.

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Road ahead closed. We meet heavy sea ice

To some extent, this delay was a relief, but it was also delaying our arrival still more, and the time pressures were growing. We remained stuck for four or five days, and spent the time practising skiing on the sea ice and generally preparing gear. The helicopter was also unpacked and made flight-ready, and undertook some scouting expeditions looking for open water. I got my first ever ride in a helicopter on one of these flights. 

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The helicopter returning from a scouting expedition

The ship’s crew were pretty blasé about the whole thing. The Aurora was built for such conditions, and they welcomed the rest. But on the science side we were getting restless. On New Year’s Eve a small lead opened up and we managed to edge forward a bit.  We’d come into range of the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley Base, and decided to drop in to say “hi” with the helicopter. As a joke, we got the cook to bake a pizza and flew into Halley, knocked on the door, and asked who had ordered it…  Being British, of course, the Base Commander could not take this in the spirit it was intended, since we were not an Establishment-sanctioned expedition, and took the quite ridiculous jobsworthy line that he could not formally welcome us.  However, the Base staff were delighted to have visitors, and several of them were flown back to visit the Aurora - including the Base Commander.  But generally the experience just highlighted how absurd and stuffy the British could be then - and probably still are. It also confirmed to me that I felt far more comfortable in the much more easy-going, egalitarian and mutually-respectful Scandinavian atmosphere of the Aurora Programme.

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The “H” on the cliff indicates the location of Halley Base

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Our taxi meets their taxi

The sea ice was now breaking up, and a polynya was forming along the coast. The captain audaciously took the Aurora to within a few lengths of the ice cliffs and we sailed south west at full steam ahead. But the ice was still around: despite not being an ice breaker, the Aurora was frequently rammed into ice at full throttle to get through. This of course maximised the engine noise in the Propeller Suite. Eventually one of the ships stabiliser fins broke off, ripping open part of the hull, and the ship took on water. A diver went down to weld the hole shut.

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The captain looking a touch stressed

Finally we reached open water, and a day or so later we met up with the German icebreaker, Polarstern, which was heading a little further west to the German Filchner Station. On board was our MSSL colleague Dr Jon Bamber, who was also working on ERS-1 validation activities.  We had a quick exchange of courtesy visits by helicopter, and to the evident relief of our Norwegian colleagues managed to persuade the Germans to sell us some beer. The captain was getting worried that they’d start distilling the diesel if they got desperate.

I haven’t recorded the date, but in early January, we reached an area of fast ice around S77°, W34° which suited our purposes. The Aurora was moored, secured, and the unloading started.  While the science teams were in the field, the semi-permanent base, Blaenga, was to be constructed on the adjacent land ice, and the Aurora was to embark on an oceanographic cruise. A day or so later, the Twin Otter arrived, after an epic flight down from Greenland, and we were ready to start work.

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Mission accomplished: the Aurora safely moored off Coats Land


The Aurora Programme saga. Part 1.

the saga begins

in Antarctica , Wednesday, January 15, 2014

This article is the first in a 4-part series about the Aurora Programme, a privately-funded expedition to Antarctic which took place in the 1991-1992 austral summer/autumn. I’ve tried to be fair and accurate in the telling, but it took place a long time ago, and was shrouded in controversy. As far as I can tell, the full story of the Aurora Programme has never really been told. Certainly there is very little you’ll find about it on Google, and what little you will find is not happy. But while there were plenty of negatives for the critics to get their teeth into, they were by no means the full story. So here is one side - and I emphasise, my side - of a very multi-faceted story indeed. I’d like to thank Dr Jeff Ridley for helping to jog my memory, and providing valuable feedback.  I have included a few passages which originated from Jeff, but the responsibility remains fully my own.

A note on the photography: all the photos in these articles have required quite a deal of attention to get them even presentable. They’re strictly documentary!

So, why, now, in January 2014, did I decide to write about a long forgotten expedition which took place over 20 years ago ?  The trigger was the hubbub around the temporary stranding of the Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy, along with its private expeditionary team of scientists and tourists. Our ship also got stuck in the ice, although with little fanfare. The principal actor of the Akademik Shokalskiy expedition, Professor Peter Turnley, is weirdly reminiscent of the leader and driving force of the Aurora Programme, Dr Monica Kristensen. Both have an obsession with a heroic age explorer, in Turnley’s case Douglas Mawson, in Kristensen’s case, Roald Amundsen. Both - perhaps - used science as veil disguising their more personal agendas. Both are charismatic and driven. And both, regretfully, could be charged with over-estimating their abilities and neglecting basic risk management.

The roots of the Aurora Programme lie in Monica Kristensen’s desire to detect, recover and return to Norway the tent which Roald Amundsen had left at South Pole on 14 December 1911. Several years earlier, she had led a combined science/adventure expedition attempting to recreate Amundsen’s South Pole trek together with British glaciologist, Neil McIntyre. Although not fully successful, this expedition was widely applauded, and set the stage for the following, far more ambitious steps. Kristensen’s objective was to present Amundsen’s tent as the centrepiece of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. From the start she wanted this to be within the framework of a sophisticated, relevant science programme. Towards this, she managed to attract considerable logistic support and sponsorship from Statoil in Norway.


Monica Kristensen, Montevideo, November 1991

At that time, more so than now, non-scientific travel to Antarctica was frowned upon and impeded as much as possible by the signatory nations of the Antarctic Treaty (including Norway). So it was necessary to acquire at least a minimum level of approval, if not complete acceptance, from the Establishment. Although not affiliated with the Norwegian Polar Institute, Kristensen did manage to get scientific backing and involvement from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute (KNMI). And she also found some fellow travellers through Neil McIntyre, at University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL).

A team at MSSL, led by Dr Chris Rapley, and recently recast as the “Climate Physics Group”, had been involved in satellite remote sensing of polar regions for some time. I joined this group, from the British Antarctic Survey, in 1989. Coinciding with Kristensen’s plan for a 1991/2 expedition was the launch of the European Space Agency’s ERS-1 remote sensing satellite. MSSL provided much of the core science team working on data analysis algorithms for the satellite’s instruments, with special focus on land ice, and we were very interested in the opportunity of acquiring simultaneous ground validation data to verify our techniques. ESA were also keen to support this, and we received additional support from the British Antarctic Survey, who while not officially endorsing the expedition, agreed to nominate staff to sit on the steering committee.

It was also agreed to provide logistical support later in the season to a 4 person glaciology team from the University of Stockholm, led by Dr Per Holmlund.

A planning meeting was held at the Royal Geographical Society in London - a venue which itself lent still more respectability - and a three year plan was sketched out, geographically focussed on the Filchner Ice Shelf and bordering lands to the East and Southeast. And of course a land route lies along the ice shelf towards the South Pole, and Amundsen’s tent. The overall plan was baptised “The Aurora Programme”, after the expedition ship, the MV Aurora.

The next step was to hold a 3 day science planning workshop in Oslo. The science scope encompassed physics, glaciology, oceanography, geology and meteorology. As well as from people included in the field party, scientists from several supporting institutes took part. All in all, a good confidence-building activity.

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MV Aurora, at the dock in Montevideo

The Aurora was due to depart from Norway in October 1991 to sail to Montevideo, where we would catch up with her in late November. In the meantime we had to prepare and ship our equipment. The MSSL field team was led by Dr Jeff Ridley, a talented physicist, with me making up the numbers. Together we wanted to provide ground data to calibrate the range and the reflectivity power measurements of the ERS-1 radar altimeter.  Over the floating ice shelf, the radar altimeter could give unprecedented coverage of the surface elevation (after correction for the geoid) and therefore the ice thickness, given a few well accepted assumptions. We wanted to test some of these assumptions, in particular how far the radar signal penetrated into the lower density top layer of the ice before being reflected. We had a model for this, but to verify it we needed in-situ temperature profiles, density and independently measured elevation and reflectivity. For the elevation measurement, the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) had kindly lent us 2 new-fangled Ashtech GPS receivers, the size of microwave ovens, and worth something like £30,000. They also sponsored a training course for me to learn the rudiments of differential GPS surveying. The KNMI provided several encapsulated ARGUS automatic weather stations. But the piece-de-resistance was the MSSL custom-built scatterometer, which measures surface reflectivity at radar frequencies. An arcane construction made from building site scaffolding and mounted on two skis allowed the scatterometer to be suspended several meters above the snow, and pushed along by Jeff in true Scott Of The Antarctic style. It was quite a sight (not content it with freezing it to death, the following year Jeff dragged the poor thing all over the Simpson Desert in Australia).

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Heinrich & Jeff practise building the scatterometer frame in Montevideo

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Nils tests the ground-penetrating radar due to be taken to the South Pole

The first glitches hit us in Montevideo. First of all, our air cargo had not turned up. It was still stuck in Madrid for whatever reason. The local handling agent moved Heaven & Earth to get over the serial “mañanas” and eventually it turned up. At the same time, a strike by dock workers prevented us refuelling and loading provisions.  We ended up leaving Uruguay some 3 weeks late, which was not terribly good news as apart from the $8000 daily cost of keeping the Aurora in port, our plan was to base our field work near to 80 degrees South, which meant that by the end of January we had to be wrapping up.  It gets dark and cold out there after that.

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Loading the supplies

The Aurora was not a large ship. It started out life as a seal hunter. As seal hunters go, I think it was pretty large, but as Antarctic expedition ships go, it was, shall we say, snug. It had one accommodation deck with the galley, mess / day room, and crew quarters; an extension at the rear for expedition member bunk rooms, affectionately known, and with good reason, as The Propellor Suite; a converted hold towards the bow which acted as the science / logistics room, and the bridge deck with the bridge, radio room, captain’s quarters and expedition leader’s quarters. Oh, and a small but perfectly functional helicopter deck, complete with GLACE (Greenland Air Charter) Bell Jetranger helicopter.

To make up lost time, the Aurora pointed due South and went absolutely flat out (all of 10 knots), putting a severe strain on the engines and fuel reserves. On a number of occasions small fires broke out in the engine room, requiring us to follow the evacuation drill and assemble on deck in survival suits. Crossing the Furious Fifties in such a small ship was seriously entertaining, with roll angles up to a nauseating 45 degrees. Many lunches were lost.

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The first iceberg

At this point I should say that apart from our field party itself, generally I will avoid using names, mainly because I can’t remember everybody’s surname.  But generally we were split into three groups: the ship’s crew, the science / expedition team, an experienced Danish-Norwegian polar logistics group, as well as a Swedish helicopter pilot and a Norwegian Radio-TV journalist making a documentary about the trip. In total the complement was about 20 people. The “ERS-1 Validation Team” was composed of myself and Jeff Ridley, with support from Peter Webb, a young Cambridge-educated, fiddle-playing outdoors fanatic with some experience of Svalbard but otherwise new at this stuff.  We weren’t likely to get into too much trouble on the ice shelf, and since I already had some experience of the Antarctic and the neighbouring Ronne Ice Shelf, this was considered adequate. Later in the season we were also to be joined by University of Stockholm glaciologist Elisabeth Isaksson and field assistant Axel Bodin.

To be continued…


no, but COMPLETELY different

the sound of, er, music

in Music , Thursday, December 12, 2013

Back before I was a fairly mediocre if dogged photographer (amongst other things), and a little after I swerved from being a hesitant aerodynamicist to being an accidental glaciologist, and during the time that I was wildly bifurcating in all directions and never quite sure of what I wanted or able to commit to something long enough to be less than crap at it, well obviously I was into music.  Of course I couldn’t settle for being one musician. No, I wanted to be a pop singer, an electronic experimentalist, a raggle taggle folky and lord only knows what else, all pretty much at the same time.  Actually with hindsight I wanted to be Ian McNabb, but I imagine he put a little more dedication into than I did.  Oh, and did I mention I also wanted to be a graphic designer, illustrator and producer too ? Fortunately I skipped the astronaut bit, although come to think of it, only just.


All the music stuff came to a dead end when I moved to Switzerland and kind of lost the urge.  This is actually quite in line with the usual pattern of things, because by that point I was actually on the verge of becoming more or less competent and knowing what I wanted to do.  In fact I had a proper CD lined up for release through a proper company, and it had a title - “Seaweed and Stars” and quite a nice sleeve design.  What it didn’t have was finished music, but some rough drafts were almost there.

And now thanks to the wonders of Soundcloud, some 14 years later I can reveal to the world (well ok that’s a bit of an overstatement) what is probably the one surviving track, a little ditty called “Coasting”, which was released on a CD of rough cuts by the aforementioned company.

I’m too old to be embarrassed.


Absolutely not Sigur Rós

“Puzzle” by Amiina

in Music , Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Although I’ve tried very hard, I have to confess: I really don’t like Sigur Rós very much. In small doses, ok, by the problem is all their doses are pretty much exactly the same.  They just do the same song, again, and again, and again, with Jónsi warbling the same gobbledygook over the top of it on infinite repeat.  But they’re extremely hip, so everybody like them. Or pretends to like them.  Actually I do like the Heima film, but probably because the visuals flesh things out a bit. Otherwise, I’m calling Emperor’s clothes.

Puzzle 260

So I was quite surprised, the other day, when I stumbled across Amiina, apparently originally Sigur Rós’ string section. Their 2010 release, “Puzzle”, is really rather good. Not too overly “Icelandic”, which is a good thing, but still with a touch of the exotic. Naturally, like all good Icelanders, they sing about coffee, but never mind. Not that Icelandic “coffee” actually merits singing about. Avoiding, yes. And their song “In the Sun” (which features coffee) does start off sounding an awful lot like Ólöf Arnalds’ “Vinkonur”.  But nevertheless, “Puzzle” is a gem. Quiet without being ambient, inventive without being too clever, and tuneful - quite unlike their ex-employers.

Check out their website.

Melt Season

the charlatan’s lament

in Science , Monday, September 09, 2013

Although it’s been many a year since I was paid to be a climate scientist of sorts (i.e a very poor example of one), I still try to keep up with developments, both on the science and political fronts. So I’m interested in what the so called “deniers” have to say.

Some weeks ago I wrote a review of James Delingpoles’s “Watermelons” book.  Although I’m hardly sympathetic to his views, I was genuinely interested to see what he had to say, and read all the way to the end. After a while it got a bit hard-going.  He’s no scientist, and while openly, and repeatedly making no claim to be one, he in fact clearly believes he understands science, scientists and scientific method. He doesn’t, and probably never will. It’s a pity, because he’s a good, erudite writer, and seems to have a well developed sense of humour and irony. If only he could just let his pathological hatred of wind turbines lie, and above all refrain from his all too frequent, sickeningly vitriolic ad-hominen attacks, he might be able to provide a valuable sense of perspective in the climate change debate, in the sense of discussing and forming policy.

But when you see this sort of article - “Arctic ice melt IS a problem because Right-wing newspapers smell, explains Guardian climate expert”, well, you can see why even the Telegraph doesn’t want to feature him in their print edition or anywhere outside of their nest of rabid right wing bloggers.

The comments section on his blog is quite an experience. It’s an overflowing cesspit of the worst knuckle-dragging examples of stereotypical British beer-fuelled closed mind thuggery.  While the odd voice of reason tries to chime in, it is only to be dragged down by boorish, Pavlovian knee-jerk reactions from Delingpole’s mindless followers.  I cannot believe that he himself is not sometimes alarmed by the sheer brainlessness of his virtual entourage.  And yet…

And yet, when you read some of the stuff he writes about climate scientists, such as:

a dishonest, highly politicised scientific establishment, in bed with scaremongering green NGOs, shyster politicians, rent-seeking corporations and ignorant, irresponsible media outfits has been warning the world of a terrible environmental threat variously called “global warming” or “climate change” which only exists in the form of computer projections


As we’ve seen in the Climategate emails, in Gleickgate, in Amazongate, in Glaciergate, in the machinations of the IPCC, in the data manipulations by NASA and CRU, in the public statements of activists like James Hansen and Sir Paul Nurse, the “scientists” can no longer be trusted to give it to us straight. It’s why what they think, or don’t think, about issues like arctic sea ice is of such marginal relevance to the main story.

or even

snivelling, mendacious, corrupt, shrivelled-and-syphilitic-membered, pseudo-scientific, rabid climate trolls. Let’s be hearing your pitiful excuses….

…then you can see why he gets the following he does.

Yes, that’s the kind of rhetoric that the once-respected Daily Telegraph presents under its banner. Pretty depressing stuff.

On the day that two brilliant, dedicated and sadly-missed climate scientists, Seymour Laxon and Katharine Giles (heard of either, Delingpole ?) were honoured at the ESA Living Planet Symposium in Edinburgh, maybe it’s time to be thankful that the vast majority of the research community just get on with doing the best work they can, despite crap salaries, no job security, and endless stress, to provide us all with a chance of providing future generations with a liveable world.

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