Tag Archives: antarctica

Last week I enjoyed an Inaugural lecture by Professor Martin Siegert of Imperial College. Inaugural Lectures are a big deal:

Imperial's Inaugural Lecture series provides a platform to showcase and celebrate the College's new professors. The inaugural lecture provides official recognition and celebration of the academic’s promotion to professor. A number of guests are invited to attend and students, other staff, and the general public may also attend the lecture. Inaugural lectures are preceded by tea and cakes for invited guests and often followed by a drinks reception, buffet or dinner again for invited guests.

Tea and cakes... I love being English.

Martin spoke brilliantly on how Antarctica is changing to an audience of about 150 people. For a crash course in "where we are now" I would say it is a must watch.

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Captain Robert Falcon Scott
Captain Robert Falcon Scott

"England knows Scott as a hero; she has little idea of him as a man. He was certainly the most dominating character in our not uninteresting community: indeed, there is no doubt that he would carry weight in any gathering of human beings. But few who knew him realized how shy and reserved the man was, and it was partly for this reason that he so often laid himself open to misunderstanding.

Add to this that he was sensitive, femininely sensitive, to a degree which might be considered a fault, and it will be clear that leadership to such a man may be almost a martyrdom, and that the confidence so necessary between leader and followers, which must of necessity be based upon mutual knowledge and trust, becomes in itself more difficult. It wanted an understanding man to appreciate Scott quickly; to others knowledge came with experience.

He was not a very strong man physically, and was in his youth a weakly child, at one time not expected to live. But he was well proportioned, with broad shoulders and a good chest, a stronger man than Wilson, weaker than Bowers or Seaman Evans. He suffered from indigestion, and told me at the top of the Beardmore that he never expected to go on during the first stage of the ascent.

Temperamentally he was a weak man, and might very easily have been an irritable autocrat. As it was he had moods and depressions which might last for weeks, and of these there is ample evidence in his diary. The man with the nerves gets things done, but sometimes he has a terrible time in doing them. He cried more easily than any man I have ever known.

What pulled Scott through was character, sheer good grain, which ran over and under and through his weaker self and clamped it together. It would be stupid to say he had all the virtues: he had, for instance, little sense of humour, and he was a bad judge of men. But you have only to read one page of what he wrote towards the end to see something of his sense of justice. For him justice was God. Indeed I think you must read all those pages; and if you have read them once, you will probably read them again. You will not need much imagination to see what manner of man he was.

And notwithstanding the immense fits of depression which attacked him, Scott was the strongest combination of a strong mind in a strong body that I have ever known. And this because he was so weak! Naturally so peevish, highly strung, irritable, depressed and moody. Practically such a conquest of himself, such vitality, such push and determination, and withal in himself such personal and magnetic charm. He was naturally an idle man, he has told us so;[134] he had been a poor man, and he had a horror of leaving those dependent upon him in difficulties. You may read it over and over again in his last letters and messages.[135]

He will go down to history as the Englishman who conquered the South Pole and who died as fine a death as any man has had the honour to die. His triumphs are many—but the Pole was not by any means the greatest of them. Surely the greatest was that by which he conquered his weaker self, and became the strong leader whom we went to follow and came to love."

Apsley Cherry Garrard wrote that in the Worst Journey in the World.

Captain Scott was a complex man.

I do like Google streetview and often use it if I am going somewhere new to see where I am supposed to be heading. So it's really nice to see it at South Georgia in the South Atlantic.

The landing page has links to various locations, but I particularly like this one of the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton.

It is a bit clunky as the poor person doing it had to cope with poor weather and moving tourists.

So the gravestone?

Shackletons Gravestone

From the street view you can see that it is quite close to white fence and behind that there is a rocky grass bank. The interesting thing is what is on the back of the gravestone and not in plain view...

The reverse of Shackletons graveA beautiful quote from the poet Robert Browning.

You can see how hard it is to see the quote in this picture.

Shackleton's grave

The cemetery also has a grave from the Falklands War: Petty Officer Felix Artuso. The submarine Sante Fe was attacked and damaged at South Georgia, and it ended up along side at the Whaling Station. Unfortunately PO Artuso was killed after the submarine had been captured. His grave is being photographed in this picture.

Artuso grave

If you look on my photos you will find lots of South Georgia pictures.

It is a truly beautiful and special place.

Everyone likes a wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans), but to see them swoop around icebergs is a special experience. At South Georgia you can watch this sort of thing for hours.

A wandering albatross in front of Icebergs off the coast of South Georgia.
A wandering albatross in front of Icebergs off the coast of South Georgia.

You can download the full resolution image at my flickr page.

But Ruth Mottram reminded me of Coleridge and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.


In that poem they did not feel the same way about the albatross. This is memorably captured by the wonderful art of Gustave Doré.

The Albatross by Gustave Doré
The Albatross by Gustave Doré

I like albatross.

The ice fish rediscovered by Doll
Mangé par le chat de l'équipage de la Terror

The cod icefish re-discovered and published in 1904 by Louis Dollo. The original caption says “Mangé par le chat de l'équipage de la Terror” or “Eaten by the Terror’s cat"!

The famous polar ships HMS Erebus and HMS terror had been in the ice long before Franklin took them to their doom in the Northwest Passage. James Clark Ross took them to the Antarctic from 1839-43 on a hugely successful voyage to find the South Magnetic Pole. Ross filled in many blanks on the map and discovered and named many places including Ross Island and Mount Erebus - one of the most spectacular volcanoes yet discovered.

Ross also took civilian experts to describe and write about their discoveries. These civilians produced vast scientific volumes to record their results.

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-- UPDATED 11 June 2014 --

This post got the dreaded TL; DR on Reddit - but at least "they" acknowledged it was useful. Since it takes someone else to pick out the value in your work I offer this tweet from Jason Major.

@JPMajor tweet


A significant area of Antarctic glaciological interest is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) and where it discharges into the Amundsen Sea Embayment.

Amundsen Sea Embayment
Amundsen Sea Embayment: Source Wikipedia

It is a research focus (e.g. iSTAR) because it is the region where the glacier ice is melting very rapidly.

A great research article by Dustin Schroeder (The University of Texas at Austin) has just been published in PNAS which presents evidence for the geothermal heat flux beneath the Thwaites Glacier.

Title page of Schroeder et al 2014

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This is the 2012 sea ice extent for both the Arctic and the Antarctic. The day of year and the calendar day are at the bottom.

I chose 2012 only because it is the most recent complete year in this data set.

My reason for making this video is because there have been a couple of huge news stories recently about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet:

On 12 May 2014 we heard that for all intents and purposes the West Antarctic Ice sheet is doomed (here is the primary research which is open access).

Then on 19 May 2014 we were told that Cryosat observations had shown that the loss of ice from Antarctica had increased quite a lot (here is the primary research).

For excellent commentary on these stories you can visit Carbon Brief, or Antarctic glaciers.org.

But whenever there is a big story about the decay of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet - which remember is land based glacial ice, some instantly point to this being not important because sea ice in Antarctica has been at record levels.

People who suggest that the observed decrease in glacial ice is somehow balanced by the observed increase in Antarctic sea ice extent are wrong. The sea ice is generally only a couple of metres thick and it is telling us quite a different climate story.

Over the next few posts I will try and explain why the decrease of Arctic sea ice is not balanced by an increase in Antarctic sea ice extent, and why there is no contradiction in glacial ice at the edge of the Antarctic continent decaying whilst simultaneously the sea ice is  at record extent.


[If anyone want the clip, also the Arctic and Antarctic as separate files in various large sizes and formats just send me an email at my work address - you will find a link on the "About me" page. And I will send you a dropbox link. I am a big fan of Creative Commons and Open Educational Resources. ]


The data is from the US Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), and the data is freely accessible from the National Snow and Ice data Centre.


It's very common to hear people harking back to the time when everything was apparently "better". Before the planet was "ruined", before anthropogenic climate change kicked in, and when everybody treated each other with respect.

Of course I don't hold that view.

Polar exploration had a golden age of sorts which is usually called the Heroic Age. It covers the time period when explorers like Mawson, Shackleton, Speirs Bruce and Scott headed South.

I am interested  in the time period before that too.

The British Library have put over a million images on Flickr. With that sort of resource surely there is something polar before the Heroic age?

Searching on the term "Antarctic" throws up a vast number of results -and a couple immediately caught my eye. They were pictures drawn by one of my new favourite artists: the Scot William Gordon Burn Murdoch.

Ever since I started researching and writing about the polar regions I have always been struck by how people seem to imagine them as some sort of "untouched wilderness". This image naturally caught my eye.

Sealing by William Gordon Burn Murdoch
Sealing by William Gordon Burn Murdoch. Source British Library Flickr Stream.

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In a previous post I showed the temperature cycle on the Antarctic Peninsula, and pointed out that the monthly mean atmospheric temperatures show that it is actually surprisingly moderate.  Whether you consider the temperature cycle moderate or not, the cold temperatures and strong winds drive an amazing amount of seasonal sea ice production.

This plot shows the average seasonal cycle of Antarctic sea ice extent against date.

Seasonal cycle of Antarctic sea ice extent
Seasonal cycle of Antarctic sea ice extent

The daily average extent is calculated from the satellite record from 1981-2010, and the grey shading either side of the line is the standard deviation.

Here are three obvious things to pick out of this plot.

  • Antarctic Sea Ice extent varies a lot: From 2.9x106 km2 in February to 18.6 x106 km2 in September. This is a range of 15.7 x106 km2.
  • The seasonal cycle is not symmetrical: There is a slow growth followed by a relatively rapid decay.

To really get an idea of what this asymmetric growth / decay pattern looks like watch the following you tube clip a few times. (The data for the movie is from the AMSR-E Satellite and it is from Climate Central.

So slow growth, and then rapid retreat. Ice tends to advance away from the continent, but as it retreats it can melt first within south of what you would consider the ice edge.

How the Antarctic sea ice extent is changing is for a future post, but it is currently increasing. There are significant regional changes over the duration of our satellite record. For a couple of good accesible comments on the trends in Antarctic sea extent you could read Professor John Turner in the Guardian, or Tamino on the Antarctic Sea Ice increase.

Data source

The average sea ice extent is part of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) Sea Ice Index.

Fetterer, F., K. Knowles, W. Meier, and M. Savoie. 2002, updated daily. Sea Ice Index. Daily Sea Ice Extent Climatology. Boulder, Colorado USA: National Snow and Ice Data Center. http://dx.doi.org/10.7265/N5QJ7F7W.

The actual file I used is downloadable from this FTP location.



In the previous post I made a plot of Antarctica and compared it to the size of Europe. I made the throwaway point that it was unreasonable to imagine Antarctica as being characterized with one climatic zone. It is not all the "coldest and windiest place" on Earth.

I thought a simple example would show what I mean:

I got the mean monthly temperatures at two Antarctic Stations from the NOAA NCDC GCPS MONTHLY STATION data available from IRI/LDEO Climate Data Library.

I chose Adelaide Island and Vostok, and picked monthly data from December 1964 to December 1966.

Adelaide Island and Vostok mean monthy temperature
The mean monthly temperature at Adelaide Island and Vostok station

Adelaide island is on the coast and it astonishingly beautiful. The data I used were collected at the British Antarctic Survey BASE T.

In contrast Vostok station is quite literally an icy waste in the middle of nowhere (* but see below).

This plot shows their relative locations in relation to the South Pole.

The locations of research stations
The locations of Adelaide Island, Vostok, and South Pole

You can see that at Adelaide Island - which is at sea level and coastal - the seasonal cycle is relatively narrow and only about 11°C. Temperatures are above 0°C in the summer.

At Vostok - which is on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet and at an altitude of about 3700m - the seasonal cycle is vast. In the Antarctic summer the temperatures are about -30°C, whereas in winter the temperatures fall and it is scarily cold (monthly mean -71.4°C in August 1966!).

If you want to know why Adelaide Island has a relatively small seasonal cycle, whereas Vostok seems to have a squashed "U" shape temperature cycle, then you have to understand something about the basic meteorology of the Antarctic Regions. (As an aside then you would understand why this happens in winter).

In a later post I may say something about how the climate is changing across Antarctica over the last 50-60 years. The spoiler on that is at on the Antarctic Peninsula it has changed a lot  - in the range "4-5°C",and the changes are impacting the ocean system, whereas at Vostok it has not.

* - of course Vostok isn't really in the middle of "nowhere". It is over the vast and hugely significant under ice Lake Vostok, and is the location of the first great Antarctic ice core - the Vostok Ice Core.