Friday, December 27, 2013

Science continues for trapped Australasian Antarctic expedition

Ocean researchErik van Sebille aims for cracks in the sea ice to carry out his ocean research

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Science reporter Andrew Luck-Baker is on board the Russian research vessel Shokalskiy, covering the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 for the BBC World Service programme Discovery. He recounts how the expedition spent Christmas Day trapped in sea ice.
Scientists currently stuck in dense pack ice off East Antarctica are making the most of their expected four days locked in the frozen sea.
The research programme of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) 2013 is continuing from the deck of the beset Academik Shokalskiy - although not quite as originally intended.
The science team, led by Chris Turney and Chris Fogwill, both geologists from the University of New South Wales, has decided to use the trapped vessel as a static platform for investigations beneath the pack.
On 24 December, the AAE's ice-strengthened vessel was just departing the Commonwealth Bay area in remote East Antarctica when fierce winds began tearing off the polar plateau.
The blizzard set in motion an armada of rafts of pack ice and the Shokalskiy became surrounded and trapped.
Barely a pool of water now shows in the chaotic icescape of floes and piles of shattered, brilliant white blocks. This vista extends as far as we can see in almost all directions.
Tantalisingly, a low band of grey sky to the Northeast suggests clear water lies not so many kilometres away. The grey colour is light reflected from open water. The early Antarctic explorers named this colour phenomenon "water sky" and used it to navigate their route through the treacherous pack ice.
Douglas Mawson also used this lore of the polar seas to guide his expedition in these same waters, more than a century ago. Mawson led the original Australasian Antarctic Expedition which discovered and explored this region of the White Continent for more than two years.
The first AAE studied or measured every aspect of the natural environment in and around Commonwealth Bay - such as the ice, the weather, the geology, and the animals, from penguins to leopard seals (the local top predator).
Chris Fogwill Chris Fogwill is retracing the steps of Douglas Mawson a century ago
The goal of the modern day Australasian Antarctic Expedition is to repeat many of the original measurements and studies, to see how facets of the environment have changed over the past century. This passage of time coincides with warming and climate change in Antarctica.
During the morning on Christmas Day (New Zealand time), the Russian Captain Igor Kiselev decided to send out a distress call to the Marine Rescue Coordination Centre. The pack ice was (and remains) thick; and at the time of his decision, there were two large icebergs moving in parallel to the trapped vessel on the prevailing east to west current. Those bergs were not on collision course and they have since stopped moving any closer.
According to Prof Turney: "The situation has stabilised and all on board are well. We are now trying to make the best scientific use of our time while waiting for the arrival of an icebreaker to release us in the next 24 hours. For anyone concerned at home, please check 'The Spirit of Mawson' website for regular updates."
In addition to the Russian crew of 22, the expedition team consists of 18 professional scientists from Australia and New Zealand, and 22 volunteer science assistants. They are members of the public, ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s. They paid to join the scientific adventure.
For scientists and punters alike, it was a Christmas Day like no other. There was some anxiety early on Christmas Day when our predicament was explained at a morning briefing by the expedition co-leaders, which in addition to Turney and Fogwill counts the veteran polar explorer Greg Mortimer.
But the otherworldly white vista from the decks and the realisation that we were not in acute peril created a communal excitement and realisation that we were going to have a most unique Christmas.
"It's fantastic - I love it when the ice wins and we don't," said expedition marine ecologist Tracy Rogers. "It reminds you that as humans, we don't control everything and that the natural world - it's the winner here. We've got several penguins watching us, thinking 'what the hell are you doing stuck in our ice?'. The sky is a beautiful grey - it looks like it wants to have a bit of a snow. It's the perfect Christmas, really."
Science volunteer Sean Borkovic also seemed to be enjoying the experience: "I'll always remember this, that's for sure. It's brilliant. We've got some lovely light and the weather's pretty mild considering. The ship looks solid. I think we'll be good."
A visit from Secret Santa and a sumptuous Christmas dinner cranked up the celebratory mood.
ExpeditionChristmas with a difference: The expedition made the best of circumstances
In response to the distress call, a large Chinese icebreaker is now on its way to free the Shokalskiy. The Xue Long (Snow Dragon) is expected to reach us at about 1300 GMT on 27 December. It is massive enough to cut a path through the ice so the Australasian Antarctic Expedition can make a break for the open waters not so very far away.
In the days before the AAE 2013 became trapped, the scientists made several significant discoveries. For instance, the expedition's ornithologist, Kerry-Jayne Wilson, discovered that the colony of Adelie penguins in Commonwealth Bay, close to Mawson's old base, now contains the smallest number of breeding pairs ever recorded there.
Findings by the AAE's oceanographer Erik van Sebille, of the University of New South Wales, are also significant. He discovered that the water beneath the extensive sea ice covering Commonwealth Bay at this time of year is much fresher, less salty than in Mawson's times.
This finding is of global interest. Commonwealth Bay is one of the metaphorical cylinders of the great heat engine of the global ocean system.
The winds and cold temperatures here normally generate great volumes of very cold and very salty water. This dense water plunges to abyssal ocean depths and helps to drive the circulation of water from pole to equator, redistributing heat around the planet.
Van Sebille's discovery of such freshwater at depths of 50m suggests the oceanic engine here has stalled. The planetary consequences of that are as yet unclear.
Although trapped for the moment, Erik van Sebille and others plan to continue their studies from the Shokalskiy. He is currently deploying instruments to measure temperature and salinity through cracks in the surrounding ice. His findings may add to the picture of freshening water which he first saw a few days ago further to the west.
Prof Rogers also plans to continue her studies of the local leopard seals.
She will be lowering a loudspeaker into the chilly waters and then playing the submarine song of a male leopard seal that she recorded elsewhere in Antarctica. With an underwater microphone, Rogers will then record the response to the singing of this apparent interloper by the resident leopard seals.
Her theory is that male leopard seals sing to define the boundaries of their territory. She's expecting to hear the locals singing louder and closer in reaction to the false stranger she's planting through the pack ice.
The fact that the Shokalskiy's engines will be quiet for at least another day is of some advantage to her experiments.
Ice all aroundThe Shokalskiy is protected against the ice but will need a Chinese ice-breaker to clear a path to freedom

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Into the Record Books: Parker Liautaud Reaches The South Pole On Christmas Eve Becoming The Youngest Man To Ski To The South Pole

19-year-old Parker Liautaud arrived at the South Pole at 13:43 GMT on 24 December 2013
-- New World Record: Parker becomes the youngest man to ski to the South Pole
-- New Speed Record: Parker and Doug Stoup set new speed record for the fastest-ever unsupported walk from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole in 18 Days, 4 Hours and 43 Minutes
-- Live Christmas Day visual broadcast interviews from the South Pole available upon request
At 13:43 GMT on 24 December, The Willis Resilience Expedition, led by 19-year-old Parker Liautaud, polar explorer and climate change campaigner, arrived at the South Pole; achieving the goal of setting a new record for the fastest-ever unsupported walk from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole and in the process becoming the youngest man ever to ski to the South Pole.

A photo accompanying this release is available at
The world record attempt began on Friday 6 December at 09:00 GMT from the Ross Ice Shelf where Parker and Doug began their 506.12km (314.58 miles) journey to the South Pole. To achieve this incredible feat of human resilience, Parker and his expedition partner, Doug Stoup, pulled sleds weighing in excess of 80kg over ice and snow, across the trans-Antarctic mountain range, through blizzards and mist in temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius. The duo travelled for up to 12 hours a day for 19 days, averaging an astonishing 28km per day. Travelling that distance each day at altitude begins to take its' toll - at times Parker and Doug have had to battle on, despite suffering from physical exhaustion which can clearly be seen in this short video diary that Parker made for the expedition.
Not only has the world record attempt been achieved, but thanks to the embedded communications technologies in Ice Broker, the Willis Resilience Expedition's custom built Toyota Hilux 6-wheel truck, the venture was broadcast live to the world on the expedition website . This also meant that Parker was able to capture the imagination of the world's media, by engaging in two-way live broadcast interviews with major news channels, directly from Antarctica.
Parker will now spend the next few days in the South Pole before travelling back to Union Glacier where the team can catch a flight out of Antarctic back to Punta Arenas, Chile. While in the South Pole, Parker will be able to wish the world Happy Christmas, live on TV.
"It's an incredible honour to stand at the South Pole after a successful expedition. Over the past several weeks I have learned a lot and am very thankful for the support of the team around me that made this expedition possible. I now hope to work with our scientific partners in the next phase of the research from this expedition and continue to contribute to reigniting the dialogue on climate change."
- Parker Liautaud, Willis Resilience Expedition Leader
"I'm proud to stand next to Parker at the Geographic South Pole after just over 18 days of skiing across Antarctica unsupported. I'm also proud to be here as an ambassador for climate change. Parker showed remarkable resilience throughout this expedition. He is an inspiration for his generation."
- Doug Stoup, Willis Resilience Expedition Guide
Before starting their World Record breaking journey by foot, Parker, Doug and the occupants of Ice Broker; the driver and mechanic Eyjo Furteitsson, cinematographer Paddy Scott and communications director Nathan Hambrook-Skinner first had to reach the elusive starting point for the walk, the Ross Ice Shelf on the edge of Antarctica. To get to the Ross Ice Shelf, the team travelled in Ice Broker a total of 1,790km from Union Glacier to the South Pole down to the Ross Ice Shelf in order to undertake a coast-to-pole-to-coast transect of Antarctica.
During that bumpy crossing of the Antarctic continent over vast fields of sastrugi, or ice waves, the team were collecting snow samples for three scientific research programs, all of which aim to collect valuable data to contribute to our understanding of global climate patterns. One of the team's first jobs on the ice was to deploy the ColdFacts 3000BX, a lightweight weather station which has not been used before in Antarctica. The device has been relaying metrological data every 30 minutes. Along the way the team was also collecting snow samples for research purposes. Ice Broker was instrumental in providing the tools necessary to conduct and store the research samples.
"Christmas is often a time for reflection. Over the past 18 days, we have watched this truly inspirational young man along with his expedition partner, Doug show us all the true meaning of resilience - both mental and physical. For the first time ever thanks to the technology on board Ice Broker, the Willis Resilience Expedition truck, we have been able to share with the world the highs and lows of this incredible journey via live transmissions on the Willis Resilience website. As Parker finds the time to reflect on his amazing achievement we hope that those who were able to follow his journey have also had time to think about the bigger message. Parker set out to not only achieve a new World Record but he also wanted to create a platform to start changing the way we talk about climate change. The conversation will continue via ."
- Josh King, Chief Communications Officer, Willis Group Holdings WSH +0.20%
For all press enquiries please contact Captive Minds
Emily Conrad-Pickles | 07799 414 790
Notes to Editors
Live interviews from the South Pole are still available upon request, but spaces are limited. Please contact Captive Minds in order to book a slot as soon as possible.
About Willis: Willis Group Holdings plc is a leading global risk adviser, insurance and reinsurance broker. With roots dating to 1828, Willis operates today on every continent with more than 17,500 employees in over 400 offices. Willis offers its clients superior expertise, teamwork, innovation and market-leading products and professional services in risk management and transfer. Our experts rank among the world's leading authorities on analytics, modeling and mitigation strategies at the intersection of global commerce and extreme events. Find more information at our website, , our leadership journal, Resilience, or our up-to-the-minute blog on breaking news, WillisWire. Across geographies, industries and specialisms, Willis provides its local and multinational clients with resilience for a risky world.

Monday, December 2, 2013

OPINION: Is WeatherNet or Free GRIB Files Cheaper Over Satellite Phones?

Is WeatherNet or Free GRIB Files Cheaper Over Satellite Phones?

One of the most frequent questions we receive is how to get weather information while out at sea. If you're looking at how exactly to get the weather, here's a blog post on how to get GRIB files to your iPhone, iPad, or Android mobile device.
But what about cost? 
Getting GRIB files comes down to two main options. 

WeatherNet Weather On DemandGRIB File Option 1: WeatherNet Weather On Demand Subscription

WeatherNet is a subscription service that sends compressed GRIB files to your email inbox. You configure WeatherNet to send you exactly the GRIB files you're looking for, with whatever complexity you need, and you will receive them in an incredibly compressed, compact form. 
WeatherNet has a vast library of weather information - far beyond basic wind and wave GRIBs. Whether you're looking for ice flow information, currents, NOAA updates, satellite imagery and more, WeatherNet has you covered. 
WeatherNet is a subscription service. You then need to buy a WeatherNet data card to purchase the individual GRIB files (they get deducted from your prepaid data card until you run out of money on the card. You would then need to reload the data card, much like you reload satellite airtime minutes, for example). 
At the time of writing, WeatherNet costs $99 for one year. You can buy the prepaid data cards for either $75 or $250.  

GRIB File Option 2: Free GRIB Files via Email

There are services out there (Global Marine Networks offers a free GRIB service) that send you GRIB files, for free, over email. The service offered by GMN is done as a public service for mariners the world over and offers no tech support for any of the free GRIB files or weather data obtained through this service. 
The GRIB files available for free are wind and wave files for every region on the planet. For many sailors, this is exactly the information they're needing - no need for anything more complex. 

GRIB File Free ServiceSo Which Costs More? 

Right off the bat, those free GRIB files are looking, well, free. 
And WeatherNet GRIB files are paid, on top of the subscription! 
But which one really costs more? 
Those free GRIB files use valuable satellite airtime to download and, more importantly, they require 2 data connections to download. One connection to send the email request to the service and another data connection to actually receive the GRIB file.
If we assume a typical GRIB file (typical, here, is a bit hard to pin down, since GRIB files can change dramatically depending on where you are and what kind of information you're looking for), we can say that a 3-day wind forecast for an area the size of the Caribbean is about 15kb. 
Over an Iridium handheld phone it will take about a minute to download. Let's look at the difference in cost between downloading that GRIB file from the free GRIB service and from WeatherNet. In either case, we assume you're using XGate satellite email service for compression and optimization of weather files and looking at doing this over an Iridium handheld phone (for IsatPhone Pro, you can inflate these numbers as data speeds are slower, connection times longer, and billing increments more).  
GRIB File With Free GRIB Service
$0.48 - Initial Connection to Send Email Request
$0.48 - 1 billing increment to send request
$0.48 - Second connection to see if GRIB has arrived
$0.48 - 1 billing increment to check if GRIB has arrived
$1.00 - Airtime to download GRIB File
Total Iridium: $2.92
(Total IsatPhone Pro: $4.20) 
GRIB File Over WeatherNet
$0.48 - Initial Connection to Send Email Request
$0.48 - 1 billing increment to send request
$0.80 - Cost of GRIB download from WeatherNet
$1.00 - Airtime to download GRIB file
Total Iridium: $2.76
(Total IsatPhone Pro: $3.50)

GRIB Explorer GRIB File viewerOne Last Thing: Ease of Use

Downloading GRIB files over email is very delicate work. You have to get the request exactly right for it to go through. This means that there are often added costs in the final cost, because more often that not you end up sending (and checking) if the request went through okay more than once. 
WeatherNet is really easy. You draw a square over a map of the world (the area you want to get weather from) and then you check off which GRIB files you want for that area. 
If the weather information you are looking for isn't available as one of the easy-to-find buttons, you can access libraries that have weather information for everywhere on the planet. We're talking GRIB files so obscure, so detailed, that it's highly unlikely that you'll find them as part of a free GRIB file download service. 
So yes, WeatherNet costs money (remember you also need to factor in the $99 per year subscription fee), but just in terms of ease of use, richness of data, and integration with XGate, it beats free GRIB files by far.

In Conclusion 

In general, we say that if you are downloading basic weather once a week, or less, you'll probably save more money with a free GRIB service. If you are downloading weather more frequently, and especially if you are downloading complicated weather information like currents, you will probably save more money with WeatherNet (and have a much better user experience). 
Have questions about getting weather information over satellite? Feel free to contact us and ask.