On the 16th may 1619 two ships, the Unicorn and the Lamprey, set sail from Copenhagen searching for the fabled North West Passage. On board there were 65 men, led by their captain, the Danish explorer Jens Munk. A year and a half later, the Lamprey limped back into Bergen (Norway) with just 3 men, including Munk, on board.
The story of this terrible voyage, their sailing round Iceland, Greenland, Baffin Bay and into Hudson Bay is outlined in this wonderful atmospheric podcast from DR.
The UK has similarly many tales of Arctic and Antarctic suffering, listening to the podcast I was put in mind of Coleridge’s famous “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, but we rarely hear of the similar stories from other nations, a clear benefit of learning other languages is being able to access these archives and stories*.
The podcast contains a wonderful description by a Greenland pilot of the sea ice and how tricky navigating it can be along with interviews and inputs from many others. If you are at all familiar with Danish – I really recommend the series.
However, the description by a nutritionist of the terrible effects of scurvy had me wondering. I learn (via Dutch family and confirmed by the OED) that the name of the disease, caused of course by a lack of vitamin C in the diet, is probably from the Dutch Scheurbuik – rip belly – an eloquent description of one of the notable later stages of the disease.
Rip here is less a description of enhanced musculature and much more a description of what it feels like when your internal organs start to bleed and your muscles and bones are weak from lack of nutrition.
Upon looking it up (Thankyou Wikipedia), I learn that the causes of scurvy had been repeatedly identified, forgotten and mistaken since at least the middle Ages. There is an estimate that around 2 million sailors died as a result of scurvy between 1500 and 1800.
2 Million almost entirely preventable deaths and 2 million men who died in appalling agony.
And this happened in spite of what appears to be the first recorded medical trial by James Lind in the 1750s, it still took the Royal Navy 40 years to start giving out fresh citrus fruits as a standard on their ships. Vitamin C itself was only finally recognised and extracted in 1932.
This story is an outrage in many ways, but a clear example also of how science and medicine, properly conducted, can help to improve and save lives. It is also a clear warning to conduct thoughtful experiments with care and to listen to those warnings when they have been issued.
It might also be a recommendation that learning foreign languages is not only fun and useful but can be it’s own reward.
“The Arctic is one of the last great pristine ecosystems, a safe haven for endangered species and home to Indigenous Peoples whose lifestyle has survived in harmony with nature for thousands of years.”
This quote in the wake of COP21, extracted from a celebrity I’ve never heard of (sorry, I’m just not that interested in actors) raised my hackles as it repeated yet again the idea that the Arctic is “pristine”.
Even without contemplating climate change, it is most certainly not, as the polar portal season report I was vaguely involved in compiling this year made clear.
There is a whole literature in the humanities on Orientalism and “othering”, about how we define other people and places partly to define what we are not. I’m not sure if there is a term for this narrative of a “pristine wilderness”, let us call it “pristinism ” for want of a better term. But before I list the ways in which the Arctic is not pristine, let me make very clear, I am well aware I also suffer from pristinism, to some extent. What my boss teasingly refers to as “the white disease”, the fascination with snow and ice that makes me want to leave the comforts of house and home and go and live somewhere deeply uncomfortable, and indeed dangerous in order to plumb the mysteries. I have been visiting the Arctic for well over 12 years now, though as most of my work is on computer, I don’t get the option so often anymore. Maybe that’s a good thing, perhaps the last thing the Arctic needs is more people flying to it.
Fish stocks have at least been largely preserved in Iceland (sensible given how important fishing is to the economy), but there have been several notorious crashes in different fish species in the North Atlantic and around Greenland. Although, to be fair these latter seem to be at least partly caused by changing ocean temperatures rather than purely overfishing. Then there are the invasive species, largely limited so far to the (admittedly delicious) King crab , an omnivore that will eat everything in it’s path much to the fear of some local ecologists around the Arctic coast of Norway.
And then there are the birds. Different bird species face declining populations due both to loss of habitat outside the Arctic as well as hunting in the Arctic region. I was somewhat surprised, though in retrospect I should not have been, at the very few bird numbers that I saw while on a kayaking trip within an easy boat ride of Nuuk.
I would have seen many more in the Scottish islands, but if a subsistence species is within easy reach of a large town (which in themselves would have been impossible prior to colonisation), it is an inevitable tragedy of the commons waiting to happen. Similarly, seals are incredibly wary and remain as far from people as possible in Greenland, a big contrast to the rather trusting and curious creatures I have been able to paddle very close to around the British Isles. And Heaven help any polar bear that strays too close to any Greenlandic settlements, legal protection or not…
Part of the problem are the difficulties birds have in reproducing. This is at least partly down to the toxic mix of chemicals stored in their fat, which comes out in a rush when these animals and birds have to live on their body fat supplies – as they do each summer when incubating eggs. These eggs also appear to contain high levels of mercury, cadmium, PCBs, organochlorines, dieldrin to mention just a few, with an effect on the developing bird embryos inside and of course anything that eats either bird or eggs.
And this of course is because that “pristine” Arctic has an extremely high concentration of industrial chemicals, heavy metals and other by-products of our manufacturing society. Albeit a long way from most sources of production. I was once fascinated to discover that all sorts of historic events such as the Greek and Roman production of silver (and it’s leaden by-product) could be identified in the Greenland ice cores, as could the introduction of leaded petrol and it’s later phasing out. The atmosphere acts as a kind of distillation column, concentrating these poisons at the top (and bottom) of the world, not to mention the local sources. There are coal mines in Svalbard, aluminium smelters in Iceland and Greenland, the oil + gas fields of Alaska, Newfoundland, Norway and Russia. Not to mention god only knows what hazardous (radioactive?) waste is leaching away from forgotten islands in the Russian sector of the Arctic.
In the food chain, the little animals get eaten by the bigger ones, which get eaten by the bigger ones, concentrating and accumulating toxic chemicals all the way to the top of the food chain.
Because humans are, in the Arctic at least, the top predator.
There is a reason poor old Ursus maritimus has become the poster children of climate change. Perhaps it’s all the bright white snow and ice, even if the Arctic Report card shows us the browning of the Arctic as snow lies for ever shorter periods at the same time as sea ice cover at the end of summer is similarly declining…
I am optimistic but cautious about the Paris agreement at COP21. I hope it will come in time to preserve some remnant of the Arctic wilderness, but even if it does we still have some big challenges to face. Sweeping these under the carpet for the sake of a convenient narrative about a pristine wilderness is not helpful. I have a great affection for the Arctic, the people and the wildlife that lives there. I started this post originally some time ago but failed to finish it as it made me rather depressed to think about, but then I was put in mind of this poem from Seamus Heaney and decided it was worth finishing after all with this piece.
Clearly, the myth of “The North” and “the Arctic” has been with us for some time, but surely we owe it to the Arctic and the peoples who live there to try and see through the “pristinism” and start to fix some of these challenges?
This is a piece about field work I did in Svalbard in 2010. I’m not sure it really belongs here, but I hope it is interesting to read about what Arctic fieldwork is really like. I have been tremendously lucky to have had several opportunities to work in the Arctic, but as I hope this makes clear, it’s quite often a big slog with uncertain outcomes.
The sun rises early in March in Svalbard but it is not yet hitting the town, we are before the Solfest in Longyearbyen, and I am lying in bed alternately wishing I could sleep longer and being hugely excited at the prospect of getting out in the field again. With the light comes the cold, it is -26C outside with a fresh wind and some light snow falling, not brilliant weather for fieldwork. I am 12 weeks pregnant and the nausea comes early and remains all day but I hope the cold dry air on the glacier will help. In spite of that, I know my fieldwork opportunities will likely significantly reduce when the baby arrives so I’m determined to do one last big trip.
Down at UNIS (the university centre on Svalbard), our boxes are already packed with equipment, we just need to get them on the sledges, pick up our snowscooters and go. This is prime fieldwork and study time and the logistics centre is bustling with students, excited to be out on their first trip, and the long-termers getting ready to set up experiments. I’ve already got my scooter gear sorted out, huge padded suit, enormous padded boots, crash helmet, thin woollen undergloves, leather gauntlets, neoprene face mask. It feels a bit ridiculous inside but I know I’ll need it later on the scooter and the glacier.
Packing a sledge is an artform, one which, over the course of the week, I will gradually start to master, but for now I’m pretty useless and just try and hold stuff when asked and keep out the way while my colleague C gets on with showing me how it’s done.
Finally, we’re off, later, as usual, than we’d wanted, but all the kit is with us and we’re making good time. Our route intially lies up Adventdalen (named for the old whaler Adventure which explored this area). In summer this is a more-or less impassable morass of braided streams, gravel, mud and silt, glacially scoured rocks brought down by an ever shifting river. When the cold comes, and the river and the soil freeze, and then the snow falls, this is the main highway out of town.
We follow a long straight line of multiple overlaid scooter trails; riding a scooter is like riding a motorbike, fast, loud and exciting. I get up to 80km/h on the straight, in spite of towing a trailer, and wonder vaguely if the foetus can feel the vibrations. I thank UNIS silently for having such good kit, the heated handlebars of the scooter are essential, and in spite of the boots my feet are already getting chilly, I remember to wiggle my toes to keep them warm and, as we peel away from the main trails and slowly motor up ever narrower valleys and gullies, I lift my goggles momentarily to allow the frozen condensation on the inside to clear.
We are heading to Tellbreen (breen meaning the glacier in Norwegian, the “tell” in question being, I suspect, William Tell), a small and rather unimportant glacier about an hour and a half from Longyearbyen. A number of small and unrelated projects are going on there this year and there is a weather station lower down that we will be using. We will be working very high up on the glacier near the col at the top where the glacier divides in two. It falls fairly steeply down from this point and I struggle to get the scooter with the trailer up. I realise too late I haven’t given it enough power and there is a slow inevitable deceleration as the scooter digs itself into the soft snow. Fresh soft snow on a slope is the hardest for a scooter to deal with and I have just made the classic mistake. I determine not to make it worse and wait for my colleague C to return with the spade. You don’t drive anywhere in Svalbard without a spade. It’s not a bad dig-in and within half an hour we’re finally at the top of the glacier.
C and a student came out in late Autumn and put two tarpaulins on the glacier surface. These will be the baselines for our experiments. Their positions marked with 2m long bamboo canes. Very little of the canes are showing through the snow and it takes us a while to locate them. The wind is getting fresher and blowing snow through the pass, we are in an incredibly exposed position and I am even more thankful for UNIS equipment. Our first task is to dig a work trench. This will give us protection from the wind but will also be where we stick our temperature sensors into the snow. We will be placing two large water canisters in the snow pack and letting the water, with a dye added, drip through the snow and refreeze. At the second site the canister will be directly on the glacier surface. The temperature sensors will record the effect the water has on the snow temperature at different depths. At the end of the experiments we will dig through the snow to find the ice, record how far it has run and how thick it is. The dye will tell us on which day the water ran through.
It sounds like a simple and very esoteric set of experiments, but it is actually intended to help us shed light on a very difficult problem. Most of the glaciers in the Arctic melt, at least partly, in summer, but the water does not run off, it refreezes in the snow or on the surface of the glacier, forming superimposed ice. It is almost impossible to distinguish superimposed ice from normal glacier ice remotely so while we can measure melt directly by satellite, we have little idea how much of it remains on the glacier and how much is lost to the ocean. The GRACE and GOCE missions give us another way to measure mass loss over large regions but for climate models like the one I run in Denmark, where we make future projections of glaciated regions, we still need to factor this in. The work C and I are engaged in is aimed at developing an approximation we can put into the model to take this into account. In Antarctica the problem doesn’t occur as most of the glaciers there don’t melt.
We have brought a snow blower with us to plough the snow away and it is making short work of the trench, there is still a lot of digging to do though, and I reflect that whenever I am in the Arctic I seem to find myself doing a lot of digging either for latrine pits, to examine glacier sediments or to clear snow. At the Greenland ice core sites high up on the ice sheet, famously the first thing you’re given when you arrive is a spade.
I try and cut some blocks of snow to use as a wall against the wind but the snow is too soft and my efforts are only partly successful. Thankfully though, C had thought to bring some wide boards and we use these to cover the trench so we can work sheltered from the howling wind. It has taken us almost all day to dig the trench and the hole for the first water canister. Now it’s starting to get dark and we really need to leave before driving down the glacier gets too hazardous. We hurriedly stick the sensors in the snow pack, I’ll have to measure the spacings accurately tomorrow, fill the canister with dye and warm(ish) water and open the tap to a dripping position. As the wind gets even stronger we cover over the trench as far as we can, gather our stuff, shouting at each other to be heard over the wind and get out of there.
By the time we’re off the glacier it’s almost completely dark and I am grateful for the strong headlights on the scooter, even so it’s a much slower trip back as we carefully try to avoid the rocks and hard ice chunks that litter the track. I am exhausted with the work and the fatigue of early pregnancy, but high as a kite with the successful completion of the work we’ve managed today – I wasn’t sure we’d manage as much as we did. Tomorrow we do the second experiment, but for now it’s time for a beer (for C) and an orange juice a big plate of chips and a hamburger in the pub for me. I had barely managed to eat anything all day, it’s too cold and I simply wasn’t hungry enough to attempt it. I am extremely thirsty, the work was physical and sweaty, but in the cold you don’t feel the thirst, and I always forget to drink.
I fall into bed at 10pm, ready to do it all over again tomorrow.
When it first became popular, google was seen as the hero against the evil empire of microsoft, but as is often the way success and growth have seen increasing concern at how powerful the company is that basically controls how the world (except maybe for China – a pretty big exception!) finds information. This week a new study showed that the world wide web, and in particular the search technology that makes it navigable like google, are changing the way we process and store information in our minds.
We are now much more likely to look up information than to remember it, but more subtly, the study also showed we are more likely to remember where the information is than what it is. Much like the famous study of London taxi drivers’ brains, it appears the internet is changing the actual shape of our brains.
I find this a fascinating result for all sorts of reasons. I am aware that my natural impatience means I am ever less likely to finish reading to the end of a newspaper article, which apparently just makes me yet another one of the 90% so of the population who are the same. Our attention spans appear to be getting shorter as we search for ever more (and probably shallower and less nuanced) pieces of information.
Of course, the same accusations of intellectual corruption were made of novels in the 18th and 19th century, and probably of books in general before that. The fact is though that in pre- or barely literate cultures, what would now be considered astonishing feats of memory were more or less routine; whether people were reciting the long lists of the ancestors, the Mahabharata, Homer’s Odyssey or the King James bible, it was all learned by rote and memorised. I doubt many modern humans could, or would even be inclined to learn to do the same. This is not only due to the fact that we can easily access the texts at google books, or just go out and buy them, it is probably also that we don’t have the time or the motivation to do so. There is a positive side to this as well of course, if we can store and retrieve information easily, we have more time to learn and create and interact and share. We don’t actually need to memorise these things, and so, the apparently almost endless flexibility of our brains is freed up to do other things.
Still, there is something communally binding about a collectively shared story that is performed, revised and kept alive through being shared. A few years ago my father told me he was learning poems off by heart on his morning commute to work (by tram at the time) and I have always been full of admiration for those who can recite poems by heart at parties or round campfires. So, in an effort to prevent my attention span wandering even further off, and in the hope I’ll actually have something to contribute at the next party, I’m going to have a go at actually memorising a piece of literature. Now all I have to do is find a piece to memorise. Perhaps google can help me out ….
On my way to work every morning I cycle down several tree lined streets – the lime trees are now in flower and the scent will always remind me of Copenhagen in the summertime. I wrote this piece last year and was reminded of it this morning by the perfume, so I dug it out and adapted it a bit, if I get time I’ll add photos later.
It’s mid June and after a baking hot May it’s cooler and humid in Copenhagen. The city is getting very quiet as the locals start to go off to their summer houses on the coast, or in Sweden, for the month of July, leaving the streets to tourists and musicians here for the jazz festival. In some ways it’s the best time of year to actually be in the city. The boulevards and streets are lined with sweet lime trees which has a very beautiful scent and the city is perfumed with it.
The parks and gardens are filled with flowers and in the evenings the remaining residents sit out in the parks with little barbecues. There are lots of areas set aside for sports and games and local teams spring up seemingly spontaneously to play street hockey, table tennis and football.
The zoo has a big elephant enclosure with an outdoor area open to the rest of the big Frederiksberg park, of which the zoo area is a small part. The elephants have a big natural pool and sandy beach and many of the park visitors outside the zoo spend time watching the younger elephants bathe and play in the water and throwing the sand over their backs, sending the ducks scurrying off in a panic with their ducklings trailing behind.
Cycling through the city is wonderful just now, especially in the evenings and especially if there’s no place you really need to be; the smell of flowers and charcoal smoke and grilled food all mixed in together, music being played in little bars and big open squares, even the careless tourists who forget to look for bikes before crossing the cycle lanes are tolerated with amusement, not everyone is so lucky to have a lifestyle like this after all. It really feels like a blessed place and a blessed time to live.
Update: I notice a friend, Kitty B. over at these sublime days has a post about childhood memories. I think the lime tree will be my memory of Copenhagen, and some day, when the Sterna family finally have a nest of our own, we will plant a lime tree so the scent will always remind us of this place.
The Sterna family are just back from a holiday at the Hay Festival. This is a wonderful event with a very diverse range of speakers, in fact it was impossible to see everything that interested me. One of events I missed was Bettany Hughes talking about her book The Hemlock Cup, which is about Socrates and his city of Athens, though I have listened to excerpts of the book on Radio 4. However, the subject of the talk led me to think that the festival itself could be considered as a modern form of Plato’s Academy, where problems are posed and discussed in a group of like-minded people. Though of course unlike Plato’s academy, all events were open to the public, even non-geometers (famously above the door to the Academy a Greek phrase ‘let none but geometers enter here’ was inscribed).
However, the concept that discussion of ideas, culture, nature, and the rest of the world can revitalise and refresh is central to the festival (along perhaps with selling books).The natural environment also helps, with beautiful green countryside all around. Sometimes it felt like wandering back in time to a lost world, or at least one I hadn’t thought existed anymore. And then along came the next talk on the secret mathematicians (Marcus du Sautoy),secular philosophy (A.C. Grayling), the smartness of the corvids (Nicky Clayton), the process of aging (Lewis Wolpert) or even the biography of the Ordnance Survey (Rachel Hewitt) to bring us back to earth.
My other personal highlight was Dara O’Briain, surely one of the funniest people around today? I last saw him many years ago as a student, and now here he is talking about how old he feels when he’s talking to students and the problems of young parenthood. Dara – we’ve grown up together…
There is much more to be written about the festival, which is held every year in the small village of Hay – On- Wye that straddles the English/Welsh border, but frankly, it’s all been said before and like the Academy probably much more interesting to attend than hear about. See you next year.
‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write’
The famous opening of Virginia Woolf’s extended essay ‘ A Room of One’s Own’ is the starting point for this post. It was just as applicable to science in the days of the ‘gentleman amateur’ as it was to literature and to an extent it is still true today. In Virginia’s day of course a woman was lucky to get a decent education, never mind the kind of fulfilling job that a woman of her intellectual powers clearly wanted and needed.Which is why the rare exceptions such as Marie Curie and Lise Meitner are so inspiring.
I started this blog (which has been shamefully empty of new posts for the last couple of months) while I was on leave looking after the sterna chick, I am now back at work and settling in to the daily life of a scientist again. I was reminded of this quote because while I was on leave I literally felt like I had no space or time to work. This may not have been quite true, but sleep, house work and some relaxing quality time with the male sterna were also important variables to factor in to the time equation for me. By going back to work I have not only got the money, but also the room of my own (well shared with a very quiet office mate) that Virginia quite clearly pined for. I can now finally get down to the work that has been niggling at me for the last 8 months. This is not to say that I am stressed out about work, to the contrary, I find my work rewarding, challenging, intellectually stimulating and a fundamental part of my identity.
I may not be able to make a great contribution to literature like Virginia Woolf, and science, certainly these days, progresses in small increments rather than big steps, so I’m not expecting to discover an entirely new chemical element or explain nuclear fission (which would be a bit bizarre given my field anyway). I hope though, that at least in a small way, my work will help to advance the body of knowledge and thus fulfil the promise that a room of one’s own holds.
Willi Dansgaard died recently. He gave his name to one half of the Dansgaard-Oeschger events, a sequence of rapid (relatively speaking) climate fluctuations that occurred during the last glacial period where rapid warming (of up to 8C over a matter of a few decades) is followed by a long slow cooling over a few hundreds of years. These events are mostly known from the Greenland ice cores, but there is evidence that they are in fact a worldwide phenomenon.
Willi Dansgaard will probably be mostly celebrated as the “founder” of ice core science, though of course many people helped to develop the ideas and techniques, some of them are still working in Copenhagen today. Remarkably for a scientist you’ve probably never heard of, a full obituary is given in the LA Times
In the last year or two several eminent glaciologists have passed away, almost all of them well into their 80s and 90s, while some of the founders of the modern discipline, including John Nye and John Glen (who together formulated “Glen’s Flow Law” for ice that describes how glaciers move), are still active in attending meetings and producing papers.
For a profession that specialises in the study of cold, dangerous places (more on my own encounter with mortality on a glacier in a later post) glaciologists seem in general to reach a respectable, and healthy old age. I wonder if this is due to the fact that science teaches a healthy inquisitive attitude to life that keeps people young? Or perhaps those attracted to field based research are naturally likely to be more interested in outdoor activities that help keeping active and fit? On the other hand perhaps it just reflects the fact that people are living longer and healthier lives in general?
Either way, I hope I manage to have as long a productive and healthy life as some of the guiding lights of my profession, even if I can’t hope to replicate their genius.