Ship of fools in the Antarctic

They got trapped in search of a mirage

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In the mega-bestseller of the 15th century, “Das Narrenschiff,” Swiss lawyer Sebastian Brant satirized the pretensions, delusions and follies of his day through descriptions of passengers on a ship bound for “Narragonia.”

Brant’s depiction of humanity as a ship of fools sailing without rudder or compass captured the imagination, inspiring a painting by Hieronymous Bosch, a song by the Grateful Dead.

So when the research ship Akademik Shokalskiy got stuck in the ice about 40 miles from Antarctica, some who knew the purpose of its voyage dubbed it the “Ship of Fools.”

“It would take a heart of stone not to laugh,” said British journalist Leo McKinstry.

Aboard the vessel were 22 scientists headed by Chris Turney, a professor of climate change at the University of New South Wales, four journalists and 26 tourists.

By comparing their measurements with those taken by Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson in 1913, they hoped “to prove the East Antarctic ice sheet is melting,” noted the Australian, a newspaper in Sydney.

It was “a pseudo-scientific expedition,” the director of the French Polar Institute told Agence France Presse.

“The debacle in the Antarctic ice is probably the largest setback for global warming campaigners since the Climategate scandal in 2009,” said the (London) Financial Times.

There’s more sea ice around Antarctica than at any time since the U.S. Snow and Data Center began keeping records in 1978.

“Mawson’s ship was never icebound,” the Australian noted.

The buildup of Antarctic sea ice doesn’t disprove the theory of anthropogenic (man-made) global warming. But it sure casts doubt on computer models which said the ice is disappearing.

Antarctic sea ice has been growing for 35 years, but as he awaited rescue, Prof. Turney insisted it was melting. If what he saw contradicted his climate model, his eyes must be lying.

Maybe he was just trying to protect his business interests. Prof. Turney is a founder of Carbonscape, a company whose profitability depends on the willingness of people to pay enormous sums to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It was warmer in Antarctica Monday than in Chicago, where a record low temperature for Jan. 6 was set. Record lows were set from Minnesota to Florida this week.

The big chill was caused by a “polar vortex,” an area of low pressure which brings Arctic air much farther south than usual. This is weather, not climate, but the icy temperatures don’t enhance the credibility of alarmists who claim the planet is warming dangerously.

There were more record lows than highs in the United States last year, for the first time since 1993. For the 17th consecutive year, global temperatures were lower than in 1998. Arctic sea ice expanded by about 50 percent, confounding predictions the Arctic would be ice-free by the summer of 2013.

Warming in the Arctic could have caused the polar vortex, alarmists claimed. But no evidence supports them.

“Polar vortices have been around forever,” said Princeton physicist Will Happer. “They have almost nothing to do with more CO2 in the atmosphere.”

“How can anyone claim that a rapidly warming Arctic would produce record cold air?” asked Steven Goddard, publisher of the RealScience blog, who notes the Arctic is colder now than it was 70 years ago.

Time Magazine was among those claiming global warming caused the polar vortex. The polar vortex indicates a new ice age approaches, Time had said in 1974.

Time was wrong then, too, but cooling was the way to bet. Periods of relative warmth have been so rare geologists call them “interglacial.”

Last year was the fourth warmest (after 1998, 2010 and 2005) since satellites began measuring global temperatures in 1979. But 2013 was just 0.406 degrees Celsius (0.731 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than 1979. The warmest year since 1979 (1998) was just 1.39 degrees F warmer than the coolest (1984).

It was warmer in medieval times, a Swedish study in December confirmed. The Medieval Warm Period (950-1250 AD) and the Roman Warm Period (250 BC-400 AD) were happy times for humanity. The big chill reminds us it’s cold that kills.

Temperatures fluctuate. They’ve been higher than the 30-year average in 17 years since 1979, lower in 19. But the planet isn’t warming appreciably. Soon we may wish it were. Periods between ice ages have lasted about 11,000 years, on average. Our “interglacial” began 11,000 years ago.


Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).

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