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.
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.