Saturday, January 4, 2014

Fossil Fuels to the Rescue in Antarctica

Fossil-Fueled Ingenuity to the Rescue in Antarctica
Thanks to modern technology, those stranded researchers didn't meet a fate that has befallen others.

Jan. 3, 2014 6:53 p.m. ET

WSJ.COM 1/3/13: A century ago, Australian geologist Douglas Mawson led a perilous expedition through Antarctica. His team's observations yielded unprecedented knowledge of the frozen continent's wildlife, climate and natural formations, though at a steep price: On the way, expedition member Lt. Belgrave Ninnis disappeared through a crevasse, along with a sledgeful of supplies and several huskies. Mawson and his remaining companion, Swiss ski champion Xavier Mertz, wound up having to eat their surviving dogs. Mertz fell ill and died three weeks later.

Mawson made it back to his base camp, only to find that he'd missed his boat and would have to wait another year to be rescued. "Several of my toes commenced to blacken and fester near the tips and the nails worked loose," he wrote later in his memoir, "Home of the Blizzard." "There appeared to be little hope."

Sir Douglas Mawson

Prospects were considerably brighter from the start for the researchers more recently stranded in Antarctica, who were rescued by helicopter on Thursday. The episode—it would be hard to call the 10-day marooning an ordeal—began on Christmas Eve, when powerful winds shifted dense ice sheets, barricading the Russian-flagged research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy.

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition had set out in November to retrace Mawson's journey. But where Mawson barely escaped with his life, the icebound researchers, questing after evidence of global warming, seemed most threatened by a storm of global ridicule.

Beyond the obvious jokes stirred by the story's basic outline, it's worth noting how much better off today's adventurers were than Mawson's team, thanks to the wonders of modern technology—much of it decidedly fossil-fueled.

The diesel-powered Akademik Shokalskiy was equipped with depth sounders, automatic radar plotting, various satellite positioning systems and a full array of communication links. Instead of relying on sledges and huskies, today's expeditioners had amphibious all-terrain vehicles to explore their surroundings. The ship also had enough fresh and dehydrated food to last its 52 passengers (including the researchers and tourists) until February, if needed. As for entertainment, the Shokalskiy had an auditorium loaded with movies and a stocked bar—though one passenger cautioned earlier this week that booze supplies were running low and might not last much beyond aNew Year's Eve celebration.

As the days passed and repeated rescue attempts were foiled by harsher weather and thicker ice than expected, the strandees seemed to stay in good spirits. The scientific expedition's leader, climatologist Chris Turney, blogged that "we are all keeping busy," for instance with classes in "knot tying, languages, yoga, photography." The passengers posted a steady stream of photos and videos to social media, with a heavy focus on selfies with the penguins that waddled up to inspect the humans.

"It's fantastic—I love it when the ice wins and we don't," marine ecologist Tracy Rogers told the BBC journalist onboard, adding: "It reminds you that as humans, we don't control everything and that the natural world—it's the winner here."

When nature really wins, the moment usually isn't Instagram-ready. Those long-ago victims, Ninnis and Mertz, knew too well what it looks like.

On Thursday, when rescuers from a Chinese icebreaker sent a helicopter to ferry the passengers to an Australian ship, many of those around the world who had followed the story might have found it appropriate to raise a toast to human ingenuity and the marvels of the helicopter—however big its carbon footprint. Maybe the climate-change researchers even raised a glass, if they had any liquor left. They certainly had enough ice. Just ask those Chinese rescuers: At last report their ship appeared to have become stuck too.

Miss Jolis is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe.

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