Thursday, January 9, 2014

The great Mawson boondoggle

At Christmas came the news that an Australian expedition, aimed at following the footsteps of an explorer called Mawson one hundred years earlier, had become trapped in the ice in Commonwealth Bay. When Mawson was there, the Bay had been ice-free.  So, the expedition evidently argued, with 'Global Warming' under way, there would be no chance of ice.  Surprise, surprise! There was enough to freeze the Akademik Shokalskij hard and fast.

Of course, the Russian captain saw it coming, but the intrepid explorers were ashore, and doing vital scientific work counting penguins. When the weather changed, and they received the message to return to ship urgently, they finished counting before they returned, and by then the ship was stuck.

At that, they panicked.  Not for them a few years locked in the ice.  Nansen and his Fram could have taught them a thing or two about waiting for the ice to take you where it will, but their sense of history did not extend more than 100 years, apparently.  So from around the world, ships were diverted to try to rescue the team. Before long, a Chinese and an Australian ship were also trapped. So much for global warming and mid-summer!

But the team was connected.  The internet is indeed everywhere.  And slowly it all came out.  The 'team' was not just scientists, and not just scientists with the basic sciences needed to study climate change.  Mawson's wife and daughter were aboard, and a Green Party Australian senator.  There were reporters from The Guardian and the BBC.  There were educationists and sociologists (expect a paper on "The dynamics of penguin colonies").  It was a taxpayer-funded Christmas party with a bit of science as an excuse.  After only a few days of being locked in the ice, the Guardian reporter was missing his banana milk shake and his girl-friend. The intrepid spirit of Mawson was conspicuously absent.

Incredibly, they did not even have weather prediction capabilities. Ocean racing yachts worry about the winds for the next week, and an antarctic expedition didn't.  So the farce continued when the ice-bound team sought help, and got it from weatherman Anthony Watts, who runs the worlds largest anti-climate-change blog Watts Up With That. He told them that the weather would probably change for the better after about a week.

Could they wait? No way.  The moment the blizzard was over, and the Chinese helicopter could land, they were off, leaving the 22 crew members to their fate.  The rescued party was duly transferred to the Australian vessel, now almost free of the ice, and began their trip back to Melbourne. A week later, the weather changed as expected and the Akademik Sholalskij sailed off under its own steam.

The leader of this abortive junket, Prof Turney, could not wait to get his side of the story before the public.  Nature ran a letter from him in which he tried to justify the disaster.  Interestingly, the comments Nature ran below his letter were almost universally negative.  Nature has a reputation for being so pro-global-warming that it will never run a contrary view, but on this occasion it changed its policy. 

I sincerely hope that the days when pseudo-science could drum up huge financial support merely by mentioning the words "climate change" are coming to an end. For the sake of real science, it cannot happen too soon. 

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