the evenings out here - Thoughts, rants and musings about absolutely everything except photography. Or cats.

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.

Aurora montevideo2

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).

Scatterometer montevideo

Heinrich & Jeff practise building the scatterometer frame in Montevideo

Nils radar

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.

Aurora load

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.

Ant archive dmsp 0176

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…


Posted in Antarctica | Writing on Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at 06:30 PM • PermalinkComments (1)

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.


Posted in Music on Thursday, December 12, 2013 at 09:54 PM • PermalinkComments (0)

Global Warming is a Marxist Plot

pass me a polar bear steak

in Science , Thursday, July 11, 2013

Watermelons”, by James Delingpole, is a major broadside against the acceptance of anthropogenic, in other words, human-influenced, global warming, otherwise known as AGW.

As an alumni not only of UCL’s Climate Research Group, indeed a founder member, but also of the British Antarctic Survey, de facto I would not be expected to align myself with the sceptics and deniers of AGW. Even worse, my University research work was on physical and computer modelling of vertical-axis wind turbines. Delingpole is not big on wind energy. But if my science background has taught me anything, it is to consider all aspects of an issue, so I was genuinely interested to see what Delingpole had to say. And according to Amazon reviews he’s an entertaining writer. So why not?

I decided not to read any further reviews - most on Amazon are pure hagiography anyway - but to make up my own mind.

I have to confess I’d never heard of James Delingpole. I haven’t really followed the AGW sideshow of warmists and deniers, and I’ve got very little patience for the question “do you believe in global warming?”. Belief doesn’t come into it. On this topic I base my views on proven facts and well reasoned hypotheses. And on those grounds, frankly, I lean towards the “insufficient data” response so far. As does a good proportion of the scientific community. But this leads us to the crux of the problem: many people, including most journalists and all politicians, cannot deal with anything beyond “yes” or “no”. Or what a man in the pub told them the other day. James Delingpole is less complicated: he can’t deal with “yes” either.

“Watermelons” actually makes several very valid points. Principal amongst these is pointing out the scale of the industry that has grown up from the AGW theory, or “threat”, and that fact that it could be very awkward for a lot of very large vested interests if AGW were to be disproved. He also, correctly in my view, exposes the excesses of the large eco NGOs such as Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth who have long since abandoned their grass roots calling and turned into massive global corporations. But then he calls out the motives of the Greens, claiming that it’s all a global sinister conspiracy to destroy the capitalist growth economy and dismantle civilisation. Hmm. Well, how does that square with the aforementioned NGOs becomming the epitomy of capitalistic achievement? Again, it’s not a simple case of black and white.

And this runs all through the book. It thrives on polarities, on stereotyping, on tarring all with the same brush. All it takes is one scientist to be found - alledgedly - tampering with the evidence, and then all scientists are “liars”. I don’t particularly want to rehash the ins & outs of Climategate, but one particular stolen email is held up as evidence of extreme evil:

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last twenty years (i.e. from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline”

Anybody with any passing familiarity with research work will see little wrong here. Perhaps if we substitute “trick” with “technique”, and realise that Nature is the most prestigious and tightly reviewed science journal around, then it becomes clear that the first part refers to a well accepted adjustment to account for known distortions. Same for the second part, this referring to the extremely well documented fact that tree ring count data needs to be treated carefully for recent years. This, in an email which was never intended for any other than close colleagues who understand the shorthand and can read between the lines. This is not evidence of any kind of fraud. And worse, I don’t doubt that Delingpole knows this.

That some scientists did a deal with the devil by exaggerating some of their predictions in order to encourage funding, that some politicians saw a fantastic vote-grabbing potential in a dumbed down version of these predictions, and that a whole bunch of entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and career Greenies then jumped on board, well this is none other than the capitalist growth economy, which the author defends tooth and nail, hard at work.

There is little real addressing of the science in the book. It is dismissed as a new religion, with climate scientists as its high priests. Actually, I note that in his blog Delingpole refers to them as climate “scientists”, presumably because they don’t do real science. When he does mention science, it’s usually to dismiss the “hockey stick” graph of accelerated warming yet again, with the usual fallacies, or to come up with claims like Arctic sea ice only recedes in the summer but freezes again in the winter, or that the Northwest passage was perfectly navigable a century ago,since Amundsen sailed through it. What he fails to mention is that it took Amundsen 3 years, wintering over twice in sea ice. On the other hand, this year, a normal sailboat, with an experienced skipper, can just sail straight through.

The old chestnut of the Medieval Warming Period (MWP) comes up a lot too, as “proof” that AGW doesn’t exist. What he seems unable, or unwilling, to grasp is that likely natural drivers for the MWP are reasonably well established, and that climate variation, both global and local, on all sorts of timescales, is well accepted. AGW theories concern themselves with modification of the natural variability due to human activity, largely due to carbon dioxide (not “carbon”) emissions. Still, in respectable scientific circles the jury remains out on the real impact. But as mentioned before, expressing reasonable doubt isn’t good for funding.

But in a sense it doesn’t matter. Delingpole claims it’s not about the science, and anyway that he is not a scientist. Rather, it’s about massive scale misrepresentation. Which is all very well, but it doesn’t give him an open license to misrepresent in turn.

Frequently I started to get the impression of some incipient eye-swivelling as Delingpole ranted on about one or other of his more far-fetched conspiracy theories or character assassinations, but most of the time he pulls back from the brink just in time. However, he goes way beyond the acceptable in his treatment of Michael Mann, and his characterisation of Rachel Carson, the author of “Silent Spring” as a “mass-murderer” is unforgivable. His description of pretty much everybody on the opposing side of his arguments as “Nazis” is also a little tiring.

But despite this, I do find myself in agreement with him on some of his specific criticisms of bodies like the IPCC, and some instances of scientists overstepping the mark. I also share his dislike of the extreme end of the Green movement. But the general tone of the book is of a foaming-at-the-mouth, sub Jeremy Clarkson rant, preaching to his followers and making no attempt at reasoned dialogue. In this he lets himself down. AGW has been used and abused by far too many agenda-owning special interests, and there are tales there that deserve to be told. But wrapping it up in a vitriolic and very largely unjustified attack on dedicated working scientists is not the way to go about.

I approached “Watermelons” with an open mind, I read it right to the end, and I even found myself nodding in agreement more often than I might have expected. But my remaining impression is of a foul mouthed attention-seeking little boy screaming “ITS NOT FAIR!!!”. A balanced debate on AGW is urgently needed, but “Watermelons”, sadly, is as unbalanced as it gets.

Posted in Science on Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 07:24 PM • PermalinkComments (0)

The Great Ocean Conveyor

It’s science, Jim

in Science , Sunday, June 23, 2013

I’ve just finished reading “The Great Ocean Conveyor: Discovering the Trigger for Abrupt Climate Change” by Professor Wally Broecker. Finding the odd 20 minutes here and there on trains is not the ideal environment to read a book like this, so a wet Sunday afternoon provided a good excuse to sit down and read it properly.

This isn’t a “global warming disaster” book on either side of the battle lines. In fact, as one reviewer describes it, it’s a new genre, the science detective thriller. Well actually, that might be taking it too far. There have many popular science books written in narrative form, often with plenty of human drama interwoven in. This is not that kind of book. Actually, it is right on the extreme between popular science and textbook or peer-reviewed journal, but none the worse for that.

Over 137 fairly dense pages, Broecker describes his original thesis for the global circulation system which drives heat exchange between the poles and the tropics, which he names the Great Ocean Conveyor. One part of this, the upper level North Atlantic limb is well known under the name of the Gulf Stream. He starts off with a preamble on the discovery and confirmation of the Milankovitch insolation cycles, and from this starting point looks at shorter term fluctuations in temperature and ice cover which are due to other factors than planetary mechanics.

Along the way, he describes the various proxy measurements of climate, starting with oxygen isotope concentrations in ocean sediments and ice cores, and techniques invented to provide reliable dating. The discussion of the sheer inventiveness of some of the methods used and the elegant ways in which they are developed to me is the core of this book.  In fact, if I have any criticism, it would be that some kind of overall treatment of the Great Conveyor itself seem to be missing. I would have liked to see a conclusion, and perhaps some better global illustration of what is known about it. The book focuses on the geochemistry, which is fine, but a little more ocean dynamics would have been nice.

The concluding chapter discuses the Anthropocene - defined as the geological period we’re now living in, starting from the point where human activity has a significant impact on atmospheric CO2 levels. One might expect this chapter to flourish a few dramatic, doom-laden scenarios as a dramatic sign off, and probably if it were a standard popular science book, the editor would have demanded this.  But actually, Broecker confesses that he’d rather avoid the mistake of crying wolf, and holds back from stating or implying that the conveyor-based mechanisms he has discovered for abrupt climate change necessarily apply the current context. However, he does emphasise that we are still far from having an answer to everything, and that the one constant is that the Earth’s climate system is full of surprises. We may well be able to deduce what happened in the past, but quite possibly we’ll only know if todays’s concerns about climate change hold up after the event.

A reader with no scientific background would probably have to skip some of the more technical discussion, which is a shame as I don’t doubt it these sections could be made more accessible. For myself, although I have had some exposure to glacier geochemistry, and can grasp the basics, there were still a few passages where my brain went blue-screen. In particular the discussion of NO4* as a proxy, which left me completely baffled - even more so as I haven’t been able to find any discussion of this anywhere else. There are a also a few key points which are presented as an elegant twist, a scientific sleight of hand, which would no doubt get a round of appreciative grunts, if not outright applause, in a scientific forum, but might be a little lost to a general readership. In shoer, and to some extent, this book does not quite seem to know who its audience is.  But that’s not a major issue. All in all, it’s an enthralling and mentally refreshing read, and I recommend it to anybody interested in what really lies behind the climate change story.

Posted in Science on Sunday, June 23, 2013 at 06:40 PM • PermalinkComments (0)

Seymour Laxon

A memorial

in General , Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I thought I might write a few blog posts during our travels in Argentina and Antarctica. But what follows is the last thing I expected to write.

On the evening of January 2nd, in a bar in Buenos Aires of all places, I heard the shocking news of Seymour Laxon’s fatal accident on New Year’s Day. It was difficult to know how to react, but a few hours later I sat down to write some thoughts. Unfortunately they were swallowed by the internet. I’ve been struggling to find a internet connection for the last few days, and I just hope I can remember my initial instinctive thoughts.

Apart from the thin veneer of Facebook, I have not really been in touch which Seymour since around 2001, so my perspective is on “Seymour before he got famous”, sort of. But I doubt that he changed much over the last decade, as he moved from being a drifting, gifted postdoc researcher to a highly respected senior scientist, partner to Fiona and father to Imogen.

I first met Seymour in, I think, October 1988, when I joined Chris Rapley’s team at UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, after 5 years with the British Antarctic Survey. Chris had assembled a great team of wonderful people at MSSL, but Seymour immediately stood out as a unique individual. He was welcoming, gregarious, enthusiastic, and although I don’t remember the exact details of our first meeting, I expect they involved a local pub and a beer, or two. Or three. Followed, I should add, by serious, dedicated science.

Seymour very quickly become a good and close friend, and it wasn’t too long before I first heard about, and then met, the object of his desire, Fiona. Over the following years, Fiona also became a good friend, and in turn on occasion a shoulder for me to cry on as well. The evolution of Seymour and Fiona’s relationship was epic and convoluted, major chick-flick grade stuff, but although there were ups and downs, sometimes quite serious downs, Seymour never gave up, and eventually we got the happy ending that perhaps nobody really expected. But they were made for each other, and as two exceptional people they also deserved the happy relationship they settled into.

On the professional front, we didn’t have much direct interaction, as Seymour’s area was sea ice, and mine was mainly shelf and land ice. However on the nascent remote sensing technology front there was plenty to share, and Seymour was always ready to provide help, advice, and solid criticism of the interpretation of satellite radar altimeter data. He was also very open to ideas and approaches which differed from his own, not a particularly common quality in scientific circles. He was a dedicated a gifted empirical scientist, with plenty of respect for the value of field work, but at the same time a solid grounding in physics, mathematics and computation.

But as I slowly drifted away from pure science, then applied science, and the science altogether, Seymour remained a firm and dependable friend. But memories of him will really always be fixed around the time when he wore a series of beloved sweaters up to the point of disintegration, when he pretty much lived out of the back of his battered Ford Sierra, the infamous “Desert Ship”, and when he was always on hand to point out that the pubs were still open. Or indeed to remind me I had a bottle of whisky at home.

I guess this memory I have of Seymour is out of date and fixed in the 90s, but as I wrote before, I cannot imagine he changed that much.

I always meant that we should get together again. I was just too selfish with my time, to preoccupied with my own life, too much self-imposed exiled in Switzerland, and just too antisocial. Actually I was beginning to emerge from this decade-long disappearance, even starting to engage with old friends on Facebook. So it’s ironic that it was through Facebook that I first heard the news.

Obviously there is nothing that can compare to the awful loss for Fiona and Imogen, but the news has hit me harder than I might have imagined as well. Probably the number of close friends I’ve had the good fortune to have through my life so far numbers less than 10, Seymour and Fiona are two of those.

I’ve got very little access to the internet over these weeks, so I haven’t been able to catch up much. But I have seen a few tributes which highlight Seymour’s professional achievements. As much as I respect those, for me the overriding memory is just that of truly wonderful, warm and unique person, a great friend who I sadly neglected (my loss, not his), and who can never be forgotten.

Many people have written their moving and eloquent recollections and tributes to Seymour on this site. Clearly he was a very special person.

Posted in General on Tuesday, January 08, 2013 at 11:52 PM • PermalinkComments (1)
Page 3 of 3 pages  < 1 2 3