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The Aurora Programme saga: Part 4


in Antarctica , Saturday, January 18, 2014

As a working scientist, publications keep you employed, and employable, and in our case, good field data was vital fuel to these publications. We had invested a lot of time, effort, and ultimately reputation (not to mention risk) in our fieldwork, and this led to a degree of friction with what we inevitably saw as the quixotic, ego-driven Amundsen’s Tent sideshow. It was something we were happy to co-exist with, but when it became clear later in the day that practically everything, up to and including the safety of the expedition team was secondary to The Tent, it led to serious tension and strong words. I am still convinced that it was largely due to the insistence of the Aurora’s captain to depart immediately that a disaster was averted. As the ship sailed rapidly north, it was ploughing through slushy frazil ice that would very soon turn to solid sea ice. The Aurora was not able to break through such ice, and furthermore was easily the last ship in the region. A few days later could have seen it stuck fast. This was a fate which Kristensen only just escaped several years earlier in the Ross Sea, in similar circumstances. It was not a situation which an experienced polar expedition leader should have gotten into, and certainly the kind of risk which Amundsen himself would have avoided.

Some of the story of the Aurora field season had preceded us on our return to the UK, and the Establishment’s tenuous relationship with the Programme had all but broken down. It seems that various agreements had been broken, various bills unpaid, and everybody wanted to wash their hands of any involvement. On the scientific side it was, perhaps, a qualified success, but it was clear that there was to be no repeat, and the foundations we had laid were not going to be built upon.

In some ways the judgements were unfair. The fatal blow to the Aurora Programme was probably struck by the combination of airfreight delays and the Montevideo dock workers. These and the later problems with sea ice seriously curtailed the time remaining. Then again, without the dock strike we’d probably just have got stuck in sea ice earlier and longer. The other issues included over-ambitious goals, underfunding, and a ship right at the extreme edge of its effective range. The Aurora Programme was sometimes unlucky, but all Antarctic expeditions need to factor in a lot of contingency. And actually, one could also argue that when it really mattered, we had been very lucky indeed.

All in all, the operation was a toxic blend of brilliance and neglect. The staggering feat of actually getting the expedition off the ground and overcoming all of the obstacles placed in its way to get into the field cannot be overstated. The Blaenga base was a masterpiece of Norwegian ingenuity and logistic skill. Monica’s logistics manager can take a lot of credit for the way he managed such a disparate group of people with humour and patience, but there was no question at all that the driving force was Monica herself. But on the other side, the scrappy surveying of the Twin Otter’s fateful depot strip was unthinkable. Any other field party would have checked, and checked again, ten times over, and marked out a perfectly safe strip, before asking an aircraft to land in such critical circumstances.

Later in 1992 we presented the results of our field work at the first ERS-1 congress in Cannes, France. Although our new Department Head was not particularly impressed - he was of the opinion that theoretical modelling could solve everything - my talk on the range validation of the radar altimeter was well received, and at least one eminent remote sensing scientist went out of his way to commend our methodology. The work helped to lead to a three year European Commission funded project which I led to establish a climatological baseline for the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf.

Jeff’s work with the scatterometer and associated experiments led to two published papers, which was a pretty good result.

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Jeff Ridley in his improvised field laboratory.


Although I criticise the “Establishment” for its lack of support for the Aurora Programme, in one very important respect, this proved to be sadly justified. The crew of the Aurora, although perfectly ok people, were normal Norwegian sailors. They had no understanding of, or interest in, the Antarctic Treaty. Wildlife protection was not a concept they were sympathetic with, and waste disposal basically meant chucking stuff overboard, even in Antarctic waters. When this became known back in Norway it caused quite a scandal, and as Expedition Leader, and owner of the vessel, Monica Kristensen had to take responsibility for this. But as a woman, even in Scandinavian society I’m not sure she had much sway over the seamen.

In 1993/94 Monica Kristensen made a further attempt to reach Amundsen’s Tent, this time without the hindrance of a scientific programme. I assume she and her team departed from Blaenga, but I have few details. Apparently they wanted to fly an excavator to South Pole to dig and the area they claimed to have found a cavity. This again required laying fuel depots for an aircraft, and this time it went badly wrong. In fact I have very little knowledge of exactly what transpired, but I do know that it ended in tragedy, in the Shackleton Mountains, with the death of Jostein Helgestad [uRL] in a crevasse field.  The report from the United States Antarctic Programme [URL] (USAP) team which rescued the 4 person party, hundreds of miles from the Pole, makes it bluntly clear that they had put themselves, and the USAP personnel, in considerable danger. It also states that the Kristensen party had no idea of how to travel over crevasses, or how to rope up.  I find this quite hard to believe - Monica herself certainly had plenty of experience of overland polar travel. However, it does correlate somewhat with an experience I had on Filchner Ice Shelf, where our team had encountered a mildly crevassed area near Snowhenge and roped up to cross it, using techniques I was taught at BAS.  A Norwegian party which had joined us for a few days looked at us in disbelief, jumped on their snowmobiles, and simply accelerated hard, trusting in momentum to cross any rifts.

These days I have little contact with my former crew-mates. Jeff Ridley now works at the UK Meteorological Office, and has helped me with writing this saga. Elisabeth Isaksson is now with the Norwegian Polar Institute in Trømso. Me, after developing what I thought was an interesting proposal to explore past behaviour of ice streams as proxies for climate change, backed by senior colleagues of the Australian Antarctic Division, was not given any support by my boss, I decided I’d had quite enough of academic backstabbing and went off to enjoy industry backstabbing instead. Probably I should have dug my heels in, but what the hell.

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Me, in desperate need of a haircut, and ready to go home

I don’t think Blaenga was ever used again - I think not. However, I have found a photo on the web of one of the huts deeply buried in snow, in 1996. Quite a sad sight.

Blaenga in 1996. Photo by Manu_mdq at Panoramio

Monica Kristensen, it seems, ended up in some kind of exile as the manager of a mine in Svalbard. These days, however, she has reinvented herself as a successful writer of Nordic crime thrillers - so far only translated into German as far as I can tell. But I doubt that she’s ever contrived a tale of a character quite as unique as herself.

Posted in category "Antarctica" on Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 06:00 PM

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