Archive | June 2016

Voyages of Delusion

There are very clear signs that nature is finding a new balance to all the energy us humans have been smashing into the system. The arctic is warming at roughly twice the rate as the rest of the world, and the ozone hole has been growing up there in spring. This warming weakens the jet stream and forces it south, this conspires with enhanced snowfall in eastern North America and high pressure over southern Greenland to induce strong south-westerly winds across western Greenland (this has dismaying consequences for climbing and flooding in the UK). The melt season there started a month early this year, beating even the current ‘record melt’ year of 2012. This doesn’t guarantee more melt, but the early melting increases the snow crystal size, lowering its albedo, which makes it more susceptible to melt later in the season. Once this snow is gone, the ice below melts rapidly.

All this meltwater has to go somewhere. Almost all of it reaches the base of the ice sheet, leading to localised ice-flow acceleration. Much of it is then routed to the ocean. Where the water spills out into the ocean at the margin of a glacier, it often draws warm water to the glacier front leading to enhanced melting, undercutting and calving. We have quite little understanding of how much melting there is there. I had a bash at modelling it earlier in the year, but even with the best data available the model is still off in daisy land whilst the glaciers retreat (usually). The freshwater is then emptied into Baffin Bay at the surface where is hinders ocean upwelling and heat release, potentially leading to overall warming of Baffin Bay.

Meanwhile, the Beaufort gyre has sprung into action early this year, leading to rapid breakup of sea ice in the arctic basin. This, combined with a relatively mild winter, a series of cyclones channelled across the North Atlantic into the Greenland and Norwegian Seas earlier in the year, plus enhanced flow of warm water to the west of Svalbard, has decimated the sea ice and prevented it reaching its usual position around Svalbard. It was even possible to circumnavigate Svalbard several times this year already, which is very rare. Sea ice extent is roughly one million km squared lower than the same day in 2012. I can see little reason why sea ice won’t reach a record low in September.

But this is good news for some. The luxury cruise ship, Crystal Serenity, is capitalising on the declining sea ice by ferrying 1700 blithering idiots through the Northwest Passage this summer. They only have to pay $70 000 to $125 000 each. That lucky bunch will get to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Parry, Ross and McClure – some of the greatest leaders the world has ever produced, in my opinion. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the history of the Northwest Passage, here’s a quick overview, but I strongly recommend reading  Fergus Flemming’s Barrows Boys to learn more.

The Northwest Passage is a sea route along the north coast of North America through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. For a long time it was considered as a potential trade route, but even now it is rarely used. I’m not familiar with the earliest expeditions attempting to traverse it, but in 1817, John Barrow made it his personal mission to fill in the missing blanks on the map around the Northwest Passage. John Ross made the first attempt under the admiralty in 1818, but on reaching Lancaster Sound, he was caught out by a Fata Morgana illusion – a curious phenomenon common to the arctic in which the air is distorted because of a temperature inversion induced by sea ice, creating what often appear to look like mountains – and promptly turned around. He named the putative mountains the ‘Crocker Mountains’, after the first secretary to the admiralty. When the mountains turned out to be non-existent, the first secretary was, understandably, not amused. This pretty much set the tone for the majority of subsequent expeditions to attempting to solve the mystery of the Northwest Passage, except subsequent missions involved substantially more suffering.

William Edward Parry, who was first mate on the unfortunate expedition under John Ross, managed to penetrate westwards all the way to Melville Island during the following summer – one of those rare summers in which the arctic opens itself to the world. Indeed, this would be the most productive arctic expedition for the next 3 decades. Parry and his crew overwintered at the appropriately named ‘winter harbour’ before turning for home. Parry’s tactics for overwintering in the arctic – maintain routine, keep busy, provide entertainment and keep scurvy at bay – set the precedent for all subsequent expeditions. Numerous subsequent attempts were foiled by sea ice and storms. Franklin and Back successfully mapped large stretches of the North American coastline, and actually came extremely close to meeting up with an Eastward bound expedition. But alas, instead of becoming famous for the proving the existence of a continuous route, Franklin instead became famous for being the man who ate is boots.

Much later, in 1845, Franklin was given the task of traversing the passage at all costs – he must not fail where all else had – all scientific pretence was abandoned, this was a question of national honour. As almost all of Barrow’s expeditions had, Franklin did not succeed. But by this point, Franklin was a national hero and what followed was an outrageous series of rescue missions, both over land and by sea, which effectively scoured this vast stretch of the Arctic. One party, led by Robert McClure (who was actually under the command of Richard Collinson), approached from the west and set off solo in search of Franklin. Upon finding quite clear seas, thoughts of rescue quickly turned to glory. With clear and charted waters in sight, McClure was trapped in the sea ice. He was extremely close to sailing through the passage that year (1850), indeed, had he pushed on he likely would have done. But, led into a false sense of security by the open waters he was confident that the way would be clear the following summer. After 3 gruesome winters in the ice, during which time the men were reduced to quarter rations and about a quarter of their weight, they abandoned the Investigator, and were (incredibly) luckily rescued by the crew of the Resolute, which was later abandoned for no good reason in the ice. McClure sledged to a different ship, and did cross a Northwest Passage, albeit on several ships. The passage was eventually traversed in a one-er by Roald Amundsen in 1903-1906, who declared the passage useless for anything.

The fate of the Resolute is also interesting. Trapped in the sea ice, it drifted eastwards for 1200 miles before being ‘rescued’ by an American whaler, James Buddington, who sailed her to America. Kindly, they restored the ship and gave it back to Britain as a present, which was instrumental in easing British-American relations. So, what else to do, but dismantle the ship and sell the wood to America? The wood of the Resolute was used to make a desk, and currently sits in the oval office.

The thought the passage become a tourist route sickens me. Imagine it: “quick, let’s get a selfie in front of Franklin’s grave (wherever it is…) before we catch the chopper over to Jakobshavn – maybe we’ll see a calving event” (the way Jakobshavn has been behaving recently, their chances aren’t too bad). At least they all get a chance to see their handiwork. Needless to say, the Canadian coastguards are not amused; though ameliorating, the weather in the arctic is capricious, and sea ice is no weak thing. The Crystal Serenty will be accompanied by an ice breaker, which will be trailing along behind it… Wouldn’t want to ruin the view I guess? The prospect of a mass rescue from deathly cold waters in scarcely charted seas is a sobering one, especially as those seas may roughen as the ice wanes.

Whilst the horde of moral carcasses, preening with conceit, pass through possibly the most sought after challenge in British naval history, they will irreversibly degrade by development the Innuit communities there, and indirectly evict the flora and fauna which form the arctic ecosystem. The same has happened in Antarctica – reportedly dead penguins have simply moved. Why do you think they moved? Truly, we believe absurdities, so we commit atrocities.