Antarctic Confusions

Australia is home to The Australian, a flagship product of Rupert Murdoch’s stable of media organs. Although The Australian is technically a broadsheet, it sadly has a track record of distortion and misrepresentation when it comes to climate reporting.

The recent adventures of the Australian expedition to Antarctica appear to have provided further impetus for The Australian to get things wrong in its coverage. Under the headline Stuck on a ship of (cold) fools, the paper opined:

YOU have to feel a touch of sympathy for the global warming scientists, journalists and other hangers-on aboard the Russian ship stuck in impenetrable ice in Antarctica, the mission they so confidently embarked on to establish solid evidence of melting ice caps resulting from climate change embarrassingly abandoned because the ice is, in fact, so impossibly thick.

The aim of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, led by Chris Turney of the University of NSW, was to prove the East Antarctic ice sheet is melting. Its website spoke alarmingly of “an increasing body of evidence” showing “melting and collapse from ocean warming”. Instead, rescue ships and a helicopter, all belching substantial carbon emissions, have had to be mobilised to pluck those aboard the icebreaker MV Akademik Schokalskiy from their plight, stuck in what appears to be, ironically, record amounts of ice for this time of year.


An ice breaker gets stuck in ice and that somehow is an embarassment to “global warming scientists.”

Not exactly.

Because if one goes to the expedition’s web page, then their first three scientific goals (there are 9 altogether) are stated as follows:

  1. gain new insights into the circulation of the Southern Ocean and its impact on the global carbon cycle
  2. explore changes in ocean circulation caused by the growth of extensive fast ice and its impact on life in Commonwealth Bay
  3. use the subantarctic islands as thermometers of climatic change by using trees, peats and lakes to explore the past

I have highlighted the important bit: the growth of extensive fast ice. What is “extensive fast ice”? It is sea ice, and it is precisely the ice in which the expedition is now stuck, as its director blogged recently. 

In other words, the expedition is experiencing precisely the conditions it set out to study—namely the sea ice that scientists know is increasing around Antarctica, while the icecaps on Antarctica are known to melt. 

There is a solid body of evidence that Antarctica is melting (a consequence of global warming) whereas sea ice around Antarctica is increasing. The reasons underlying those seemingly opposing trends make for some fascinating science.

But being fascinated by science, and getting it right, is not anything we can expect from The Australian, alas.