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Mocked And Belittled For Getting Stuck In Ice, A Climate Scientist Finally Has His Say

'It was a beautiful example of how people mix up the science completely.'

01/08/2017 2:00 PM AEST | Updated 01/08/2017 2:02 PM AEST
Stringer . / Reuters
Turney, on the deck of the stranded MV Akademik Shokalskiy in Antarctica, December 2013.

When Chris Turney, Professor of earth science and climate change at the University of NSW, became stuck in ice three-and-a-half years ago in Antarctic waters, people who reject climate science had a field day.

Bloggers and certain sections of the media wrote of the "acute embarrassment" he must be feeling, and of the "irony of it all". They said he had been "trapped in his own experiment", called his expedition a "Ship of Cold Fools" and a "comedic fiasco", while one critic simply labelled his voyage "the Clitanic".

"It's a fabulous example of where science communication doesn't always work," Turney told HuffPost Australia when we caught up this week. "It was a beautiful example of how people mix up the science completely.

"Some of it was incredibly personal. I don't know why some people feel so threatened that they can't debate science on what the evidence is showing, but some people are like that I guess."

Alan Williams

So how did so many people mix up the science and the message behind it? How did an expedition which was measuring (among numerous other things) the melting of glaciers and ice sheets get stuck for weeks in unexpectedly thick sea ice?

Turney answers all this in Episode 1 of Series 2 of HuffPost Australia's popular podcast Breaking The Ice -- our ongoing series of conversations with the people on the front lines of climate science. You can listen to it here.

In a nutshell, you really only need to know two things:

  • The first is that Chris's expedition was sailing to a region which he already knew had more sea ice than before. He wanted to verify why.
  • The second point, and this plays directly to the first, is that climate change has caused some dramatic changes to currents and winds in and around Antarctica. One major effect is that warm water is undercutting vast glaciers. That's making them melt faster than ever, and releasing fresh water into the ocean. Guess what? Fresh water freezes quicker than sea water. Result: more sea ice (and less land ice).

There's a whole bunch more info about both the trip and the science behind Antarctic climate change in our podcast. We also recommend Chris's book Shackled, which we think is a bloody good read. It's available now.

Penguin

Those of you who know your Antarctic will of course work out straight away that the book's title is a reference to the explorer Shackleton. Interestingly, Shackleton's expedition 100 years ago was stuck in ice too. His party was forced to eat penguins. Ugh.

We know Turney was never pushed quite that far (REPEAT: HE DID NOT EAT PENGUINS), but we thought he might have a better idea than us what penguins actually taste like.

"Quite salty I'd imagine," he said.

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