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What A Difference A Century Makes

What A Difference A Century Makes


In this image provided by Australasian Antarctic Expedition, Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy is trapped in thick Antarctic ice 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart, Australia, Friday, Dec. 27, 2013. (AP Photo / Australasian Antarctic Expedition, Chris Turney)

Could a century old expedition to the uncharted lands of the Antarctic participate in the further unraveling of catastrophic man-made global warming?

Some of you may have already picked up on the struggles of a Russian research vessel getting caught up in thick ice-pack in the Antarctic. I had first heard of the story, having been reported from ABC News in Australia here.  Near the end of the article, Russell Goldman wrote,

“Of the 57 souls on board, 22 are crewmen and 35 are passengers. The ship cruised to the site of a 1911-1914 expedition of British explorer Sir Douglas Mawson.”

So, being curious where this ship might have been caught up in the ice-pack, I decided to read a little bit into Sir Douglas Mawson and this site that the current cruise ship was supposedly at. As luck would have it, I stumbled across a Book that Mawson wrote about his expedition to the Antarctic. The book is called, “The Home of the Blizzard- Being the story of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911-1914.” If you have time, I suggest everyone read the book. But for now, I just want to show a portion of the book, regarding Mawsons account of Cape Denison, the location he used to build what is now known as the Mawson huts and what I assume is the location of the stranded cruise ship. Mawson writes,

“The main body of the archipelago was found to be separated by a mile and a half from the mainland. A point which struck us at the time was that the islets situated on the southern side of the group were capped by unique masses of ice; resembling iced cakes. Later we were able to see them in process of formation. In the violent southerly hurricanes prevalent in Adelie Land, the spray breaks right over them. Part of it is deposited and frozen, and by increments the icing of these monstrous “cakes” is built up. The amount contributed in winter makes up for loss by thawing in midsummer. As the islets to windward shelter those in their lee, the latter are destitute of these natural canopies.

Soundings were taken at frequent intervals with a hand lead-line, manipulated by Madigan. The water was on the whole shallow, varying from a few to twenty fathoms. The bottom was clothed by dense, luxuriant seaweed. This rank growth along the littoral was unexpected, for nothing of the kind exists on the Ross Sea coasts within five or six fathoms of the surface.

Advancing towards the mainland, we observed a small islet amongst the rocks, and towards it the boat was directed. We were soon inside a beautiful, miniature harbour completely land-locked. The sun shone gloriously in a blue sky as we stepped ashore on a charming ice-quay — the first to set foot on the Antarctic continent between Cape Adare and Gaussberg, a distance of one thousand eight hundred miles.

Wild and I proceeded to make a tour of exploration. The rocky area at Cape Denison, as it was named, was found to be about one mile in length and half a mile in extreme width. Behind it rose the inland ice, ascending in a regular slope and apparently free of crevasses — an outlet for our sledging parties in the event of the sea not firmly freezing over. To right and left of this oasis, as the visitor to Adelie Land must regard the welcome rock, the ice was heavily crevassed and fell sheer to the sea in cliffs, sixty to one hundred and fifty feet in height. Two small dark patches in the distance were the only evidences of rock to relieve the white monotony of the coast.

In landing cargo on Antarctic shores, advantage is generally taken of the floe-ice on to which the materials can be unloaded and at once sledged away to their destination. Here, on the other hand, there was open water, too shallow for the ‘Aurora’ to be moored alongside the ice-foot. The only alternative was to anchor the ship at a distance and discharge the cargo by boats running to the ideal harbour we had discovered. Close to the boat harbour was suitable ground for the erection of a hut, so that the various impedimenta would have to be carried only a short distance. For supplies of fresh meat, in the emergency of being marooned for a number of years, there were many Weddell seals at hand, and on almost all the neighbouring ridges colonies of penguins were busy rearing their young.64

As a station for scientific investigations, it offered a wider field than the casual observer would have imagined. So it came about that the Main Base was finally settled at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay.

We arrived on board at 8 P.M., taking a seal as food for the dogs. Without delay, the motor-launch was dropped into the water, and both it and the whale-boat loaded with frozen carcasses of mutton, cases of eggs and other perishable goods.

While some of us went ashore in the motor-launch, with the whale-boat in tow, the ‘Aurora’ steamed round the Mackellar Islets seeking for a good anchorage under the icy barrier, immediately to the west of the boat harbour. The day had been perfect, vibrant with summer and life, but towards evening a chill breeze sprang up, and we in the motor-launch had to beat against it. By the time we had reached the head of the harbour, Hoadley had several fingers frost-bitten and all were feeling the cold, for we were wearing light garments in anticipation of fine weather. The wind strengthened every minute, and showers of fine snow were soon whistling down the glacier. No time was lost in landing the cargo, and, with a rising blizzard at our backs, we drove out to meet the ‘Aurora’.”

This is a map of the Antarctic as Mawson knew it (As seen in the book, Home of the Blizzard)

This is a map of the Antarctic as Mawson knew it (As seen in the book, Home of the Blizzard)

There is so much information having been  wrote here, that I force myself to focus on the part I highlighted. Mawson writes that they usually unpack onto the ice-floe and sled it in, but because of the open water, they used a smaller boat to bring their gear to shore.

It was at this juncture I thought I felt I had some evidence to suggest the location of our stranded cruise/research ship. I must now switch gears and discuss what is happening in the here and now, with this stranded ship I was discussing earlier.

The ship in question is the Russian passenger ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy. From Expeditions Online they write, “The Akademik Shokalskiy is a fully ice-strengthened expedition vessel built in 1984 for polar and oceanographic research. This class of vessel is world renowned for polar exploration, because of its strength, maneuverability and small passenger numbers.” On a side note, they also write,”NOTE TO NEWS REPORTERS: Expeditions Online is NOT the operator for this vessel but is an independent polar booking agent for this and many other expedition ships.” That got a giggle out of me. They are already covering their ass!

The only report I could find Christmas night coming from this expedition, was from one of the scientists on board. His name is Chris Turney. Chris Turney wrote on his twitter page,”We’re in the ice like the explorers of old! All are well and spirits are high. Happy Christmas from the AA…”

Now, if some of you haven’t been following the story, well, not a lot had been known. The media either knew little, or those that did know, weren’t writting about it. It hadn’t been until  Friday that several stories were been published. As of this moment, almost every news agency is reporting about it. And they are all nearly writing the same thing. The Russian vessel is stuck and 2 of the 3 Icebreakers can’t reach the stranded vessel. Both the Chinese icebreaker SnowDragon, and the French icebreaker L’Astrolabe, had to break off their rescue mission and are on standy by. The Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis is currently another day away, but speculation is that even it won’t be able to break through either. L’Astrolabe and Aurora Australis are both LR 1A Super Icebreakers. I imagine that if one 1A icebreaker can’t get through, another one can’t either. Also, it was just a little over a month ago that the Aurora Australis itself was caught in heavy ice-pack, 180 miles from shore near Davis Station, Antarctica. It took nearly 3 weeks to get unstuck. That is another story that seemed to have got passed by MSM.

So, to this point, what do we know. The Akademik Shokalskiy is stuck near Cape Denison, and 2 of 3 Icebreakers have been unable to dislodge it from the seas frozen grasp. We also know that the ship is following the Douglas Mawson expedition of 1911-1914. Or did they?

After some further research, I came upon this website, The Spirit of Mawson. The very first paragraph is quoted as saying,

“The Antarctic remains one of the last great unexplored regions on Earth. In spite of a century of discovery, Antarctica and the Southern Ocean remain a unique place to monitor the health of our planet. The Australasian Antarctic Expedition – the AAE – will truly meld science and adventure, repeating century old measurements to discover and communicate the changes taking place in this remote and pristine environment.”

Then directly underneath this paragraph,  is a graph displaying what they call a Live Expedition Tracker.

AAE 2013

When we zoom into the graph, we can see that in fact, the expedition had already visited the Mawson huts and are now actually

AAE 2013 Cape Denison

Their current location

Current location of stranded ship.

Now, of course, I was intrigued. Had they actually been to the harbour at the Mawson hut, without any obstruction of sea ice, and continued east and got stuck, or is there something else going on here. I had to research a little more.

Chris Turney blogs at SpiritofMawson, “Following our successful visit to Cape Denison, sea ice remained clear, allowing our science expedition to proceed to the Mertz Glacier and open water polynya on the other side of Commonwealth Bay.” He says they had a successful visit, but upon further review, I think he is being a little misleading. While they had a couple teams reach Cape Denison, it was in the manner they reached there.


The vehicle that got the teams to Mawson Hut

Turney is quoted as saying,

“We set off at 0630 on the morning of the 19 December with excitement and some trepidation. Would we make it to Mawson’s Hut? I dared to hope but knew we faced all manner of challenges. We had some 65 kilometres of uncharted sea ice to navigate, with jumbled surfaces and tidal cracks to negotiate. The sky was cloudy and promised no warmth. And yet morale was high. We were giving it a go. With Greg waving us off, we took off with the tracked Argo in the lead, the vehicles packed with the team members and gear.”

No, they had not reached Mawson Hut by ship, but by Argo! Some 40 miles from their destination, they unloaded their ATVs and trekked the last 65 km to reach their destination. If this is what Turney considers a successful visit, I think we can only agree that it was a partial success.

A true success would have been to arrive their in a ship. Just like Mawson did.

Well, I wouldn’t have expected a clear disclosure from this team.

The purpose of the expedition, as Andrew Peacock, doctor/photographer for the expedition put it, “Our expedition will be ‘monitoring the health of the planet’ by trying to gauge the changes since Mawson’s time. We will be repeating the measurements made by Mawson’s team – with observations of the ocean, wildlife, weather, geology and ice cover.”

I can’t help but reflect how this story so closely resembles another bungled expedition. Some of you may remember the PR stunt known as ‘Row To The Pole.’ In their attempt to reach the North Pole, via a rowing boat, they had first said they had reached the north pole. A first of its kind. But later, as investigative journalists discovered, the row boat had for most of the last leg to reach their destination, had been towed by hand, and that they hadn’t traveled to the North Pole, but to a location of magnetic north from 1995. They later corrected their claims, but by then, many media outlets had already hoisted them as heros and claimed the feat as a result of global warming.

Lets see now what comes from this story. I will keep you up to date as the information comes in. Until then, lets pay our respects to Sir Douglas Mawson and his successful  attempt to Cape Denison and the further discovers he made 100 years ago.


Sir Douglas Mawson

Happy Holidays !

Alan Bryant