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Scientists at work: stuck in the Antarctic ice we set out to study

Antarctica is a desolate place. That much we know, but nothing prepares you for it until you actually get there. It’s cold, windy and lonely. Everything about it is the exact opposite of my normal summer…

On board the wonderful Australian icebreaker Aurora australis. Intrepid Science

Antarctica is a desolate place. That much we know, but nothing prepares you for it until you actually get there. It’s cold, windy and lonely. Everything about it is the exact opposite of my normal summer destination. But scientists value the continent like an uncut gem.

Every bit of data retrieved from Antarctica pushes science forward. Which is why just over a month ago, we set out on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013. Our goal was a survey of the Southern Ocean near a place called Commonwealth Bay, which is unique because its conditions changed dramatically a few years ago.

Ever since Sir Douglas Mawson first arrived in Commonwealth Bay in 1912, the place has been ice-free and directly connected to the Southern Ocean in summer. But in 2010 a giant iceberg (B09B, almost 100km wide) ran aground in the middle of the bay and since then sea ice has been building up around the berg. There is now 70km of ice between the ocean and the site where Mawson sailed in.

Mawson’s original Australasian Antarctic Expedition Intrepid Science

Scientifically, the iceberg offers a wonderful opportunity. Climate change in Antarctica means melting of the ice sheet, but also an increase in sea ice. While the extra sea ice in Commonwealth Bay is not directly due to climate change, the site offers a unique glimpse of how it affects the ecosystems.

Commonwealth Bay is as close to a controlled lab experiment as one can get in Antarctic science. So despite my aversion to cold, I joined a team of ecologists, glaciologists, ornithologists and oceanographers heading south. Along with us, we had journalists, teachers and nearly two dozen paying science volunteers. We set out to study what difference an iceberg makes.

With the birds

I’ve been at sea before, having spent a total of 15 weeks aboard four different research vessels, measuring the temperature and salinity of the ocean. But all of these expeditions were in the subtropics. There isn’t much ice around there.

Taking observations on ice is much more difficult than in open water. Going off the ship is an endeavour – the Antarctic equivalent of a spacewalk. It requires careful planning and preparation. Even a short trip requires a full survival kit, including tent, sleeping bag, freeze-dried food and a plastic bag to use as toilet. This is because blizzards can trap people in the open without warning. Fortunately, we never needed to use the survival kit. Nor the plastic bag.

We returned to the ship with some amazing data. My ecologist colleagues found that kelp forests are dying in Commonwealth Bay because the sea ice blocks sunlight. My ornithologist colleague found that penguin colonies are in decline as the penguins need to walk so much further to get to open water. And I found that the water below the sea ice has become less saline.

The cyclic freezing and melting of the bottom parts of the sea ice annually has created a 40m thick freshwater lens. As freshwater freezes more easily than saltier water, the drop in salinity below the sea ice means that it is easier to form new sea ice. This is called a positive feedback cycle, and it means that the bay is likely to remain covered with sea ice for quite some time.

The Shokalskiy in sea ice Intrepid Science

Testing times

And then we became world news. As we packed up our gear and got ready to sail back to New Zealand, we got caught by a massive outbreak of unusually thick, old sea ice. Within hours, our ship was surrounded by heavy ice, too thick for us to break through. We were stuck in our own experiment. Stranded in the ice we came to study.

Thanks to crews of the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, the French icebreaker l’Astrolabe and the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis, we were rescued. Not only did the evacuation they carry out bring everyone to safety, we were able to salvage our valuable samples and data as well. This data is crucial for helping us to understand Antarctica better.

Our adventure shows the difficulty of fieldwork in Antarctica. One hundred years since the first exploration it is still a major endeavour to get to the frozen continent. But there is so much research to be done – and we need all the help we can get.


Other articles in this series: Scientists at work: the lava lovers who flock to volcanoes on land and at sea

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62 Comments sorted by

Comments on this article are now closed.

  1. Jim Inglis

    retired

    Thanks Erik, I don't know if you got this right though: "Climate change in Antarctica means melting of the ice sheet, but also an increase in sea ice."

    Do you really think that with record net gains in sea ice there can be net losses in land ice at altitude?

    What is the mechanism for that?

    I realise that NASA can be a little confused too:

    http://stevengoddard.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/screenhunter_1418-jan-09-09-05.gif

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    1. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      You are confused. You do not appear to know the difference between permanent land ice and seasonal sea ice.

      You may wish to start here
      "Continental v. sea ice
      First off, sea ice is different to the “continental ice” associated with polar ice caps, glaciers, ice shelves and icebergs. Continental ice is formed by the gradual deposition, build up and compaction of snow, resulting in ice that is hundreds to thousands of metres thick, storing and releasing freshwater that influences global sea-level…

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    2. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      "Your link is **not** to a science site run by scientists but to the blog of an anonymous climate crank who hides behind the name Steven Goddard."

      Instead of getting all het up, why don't you say what's wrong with it.

      It is after all, just NASA data.

      Here is some more NASA information that completely invalidates your claims about the land ice melt.

      And the message comes from another one of those messengers that you alarmists love to shoot:

      http://wattsupwiththat.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/grasp_science_goals.png

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    3. David Rennie

      IT Contractor

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Jim,
      There is nothing wrong with the link. The data however is as usual cherry picked starting in 1998, which as has been endlessly pointed out was 0.2 degrees hotter than any previous year. So the trend lines are irrelevant to long term trends. If the data from 1996 or 1999 to 2014 is used the decline disappears.
      Furthermore RSS estimates the temperature on the lower troposphere not the surface so there are inevitably variations between the two data sets. That is one reason why scientists use a minimum 30 year trend to make assessments.
      In short the graph is unscientific. the time frame is too short, it compares two different things. And the image is constructed to mislead the uneducated.

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    4. David Rennie

      IT Contractor

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Jim,
      What is that graph meant to represent! It contains no source and no information about the data. Australia represents a very small fraction and what ever the trend is in Australia it only mildly correlates with global temperature.
      The BOM provides the authoritative measure for Australia and according to its records most of Australia has been warming by more than 0.15 degrees per decade for the past 35 years.
      http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/change/index.shtml#tabs=Tracker&tracker=trend-maps
      Again your source may have been able to cherry pick a particular data set to present the graph you provide or it may be just completely fabricated. It certainly isn't anything that an intelligent person would prefer in preference to the BOM (for Australia) or GISS data for the world. The RSS data you referred to earlier shows an approx 0.14 degrees rise per decade over the same period. Giss and HADCRUT show slightly more.

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    5. In reply to Jim Inglis

      Comment removed by moderator.

    6. In reply to Mike Hansen

      Comment removed by moderator.

    7. David Rennie

      IT Contractor

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Jim,
      You seem to think that a few random temperature records from just one of many temperature records somehow negates rigorous science.
      You need to identify the source of your pretty pictures before they are even worth considering.
      The RSS record over the past 35 years shows a clear temperature increase of approx 0.12 degrees per decade. http://www.woodfortrees.org/plot/rss/from:1979/plot/rss/from:1979/trend. Within that global trend individual locations will have significantly different rates of increase.
      You seem to be one of those people who doesn't understand that climate is highly variable and that we need to look at the global picture, not cherry pick particular results that suit your argument.
      No scientist would consider your comments worthy of response, because that don't meet the simplest requirements of academic research.

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    8. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to David Rennie

      "You seem to be one of those people who doesn't understand that climate is highly variable and that we need to look at the global picture, not cherry pick particular results that suit your argument."

      David, why don't you listen to what's being shouted from the rooftops at present. It's this:

      Australia is having its hottest year. EVAH !!!

      According to "SCIENCE".

      That NASA RSS graph above, that Mike Hansen just choked on, shows the TLT reading for Australia for the last 35 years as normal. Nothing to be concerned about.

      How is that "cherry picking"?

      There is more science in RSS than in selected ground sites.

      And while you're in the mood for quoting RSS at WFT, check the last 17+ years against CO2.

      http://www.woodfortrees.org/plot/rss/from:1996.65/trend/plot/esrl-co2/from:1997/normalise:0.5/scale:0.5/offset:0.34

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    9. In reply to Jim Inglis

      Comment removed by moderator.

    10. David Rennie

      IT Contractor

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Jim,
      To calculate the Australian annual temperature BOM takes the continuous daily record of high quality temperature measurements from over 100 standard measuring points all at ground level. The fact that last year was the hottest year in that record is determined by processing all that data to determine accurate figures.
      RSS doesn't measure temperature it measures a proxy for temperature and calculates temperature. The full RSS /UAH global temperature record since 1979 is available here…

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    11. David Rennie

      IT Contractor

      In reply to Jim Inglis
    12. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to David Rennie

      UAH have to be much more "alarmist" than NASA RSS because NASA won't be vilified like UAH, and can tell it like it is.

      And which alarmist scientist said that there would need to be 17 years of no warming before you could discredit the GHG theory [or words to that effect].

      But would you accept 4.7 billion years of net cooling cherry picking, David?

      Or would you deny that too?

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    13. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to David Rennie

      "Thats why the scientists use 30 year trends not 15 years or 17 years like climate deniers."

      Forgotten already what climate scientist Ben Santer said a few years back, hey David?

      "The research shows that climate models can and do simulate short, 10- to 12-year "hiatus periods" with minimal warming, even when the models are run with historical increases in greenhouse gases and sulfate aerosol particles. They find that tropospheric temperature records must be at least 17 years long to discriminate between internal climate noise and the signal of human-caused changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere."

      So now, at ~ 17.5 years, no warming of tropospheric temperature is a definite signal.

      Oh dear, how embarrassing.

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    14. David Rennie

      IT Contractor

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Jim,
      "So now, at ~ 17.5 years, no warming of tropospheric temperature is a definite signal. Oh dear, how embarrassing.".
      It's not the least bit embarrassing when the causes are well known. Scientists have looked at the 'hiatus', determined its causes and decided it does not detract from the basic science of global warming. All the temperature records show warming during the standard scientific time frame of 30 years

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    15. David Rennie

      IT Contractor

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Jim,
      "But would you accept 4.7 billion years of net cooling cherry picking, David?
      Or would you deny that too?"
      Now you are really clutching at straws. Claims of a conspiracy between UAH and NASA to justify your position. Introduction of completely irrelevant facts to argue point.

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    16. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to David Rennie

      "Scientists have looked at the 'hiatus', determined its causes and decided it does not detract from the basic science of global warming."

      And what causes are those, David?

      Too embarrassed to say?

      Because of no evidence and no known physical mechanism?

      Would they be, by any chance, assumed but unmeasured and unmeasurable "warming" in the deep oceans?

      But not at or near the surface?

      I think even the scientists have given up on that fairy story.

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    17. David Rennie

      IT Contractor

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      JIm,
      There have been plenty of articles explaining the hiatus, here's just one:
      http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/3034003/posts
      There are well known mechanisms including the ENSO effect, Solar Variablity, Atmospheric Aerosols, Ice melt, and the transfer of heat to the deep ocean.
      If you read some scientists rather than the bloggers you would be aware of this information.

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    18. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to David Rennie

      "Claims of a conspiracy between UAH and NASA to justify your position."

      David, I know you alarmists jump to some wild conclusions but how you can possibly conclude that I infer any sort of conspiracy theory from my statement above, is beyond logic.

      It is in fact the reverse.

      In case you didn't get my point [which seems pretty obvious], to put it in simple terms, Christy and Spencer, not being part of the "consensus", have to err on the side of the warmers to have any chance of acceptance whereas NASA is allowed to tell the truth and show there is no recent warming and get away with it.

      And if you are determined to put your fingers in your ears and scream "cherry picking" whenever I mention 17+years of no warming, I thought I'd better only deal with the bigger picture.

      But no luck there either, alas. 4.7bil years of cooling is clutching at straws.

      Just not enough proven cooling, negative feedbacks or lack of tipping points, hey David?

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    19. David Rennie

      IT Contractor

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Jim,
      When the scientific standard is 30 years, choosing any time frame just because its suits your conclusion is cherry picking. This will explain cherry-picking for you.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherry_picking_%28fallacy%29
      As previously pointed out RSS, UAH, GISS and HADCRUT4 all show very similar patterns of temperature over the past 35 years. RSS rose faster than UAH from 1979 to 1998, UAH rose faster than RSS from 1998 to the present, They both use the same satellite data from NASA…

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    1. David Semmens

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      You do realise that Turney is talking about how the Adelie penguins are faring now while the WHOI study looked at how Emperor penguins might fare in the future under projected warming?

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    2. David Semmens

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to David Semmens

      There is also now a timely article about Emperor penguins and sea ice on The Conversation:
      https://theconversation.com/new-behaviour-leaves-antarctic-penguins-on-the-shelf-21849

      Notably, it's the timing that the sea ice forms (and presumably breaks up) that is important for breeding success. It's also fast ice, stuck to the landmass that is important for the Emperor penguins, not the pack ice that trapped the Shokalskiy and is potentially a problem for the Adelie penguins (and other marine organisms in Commonwealth Bay).

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    3. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to David Semmens

      Makes my point, don't you think David.

      Do you think science really has any idea?

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    4. In reply to Jim Inglis

      Comment removed by moderator.

    5. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to David Semmens

      Thanks for the link David.

      Inglis provided a link to twitter where a group of climate cranks were trolling Professor Chris Turney for some, as it turns out very accurate comments he made about penguin colonies in Antarctica.

      The climate cranks obviously do not get their science from The Conversation. :-)

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    6. David Semmens

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      No, it doesn't support your point.

      I don't think the science is the problem here.

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    7. In reply to Mike Hansen

      Comment removed by moderator.

    8. David Semmens

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Mawson didn't have the problem because there was no pack ice in Commonwealth Bay when he visited. Which is the reason that the AAE went there. But, perhaps you're right, Turney and Co should have looked to the example of how the early, much smarter explorers like Mawson and Shackleton navigated the sea ice and perhaps they would have avoided being trapped. Especially Shackleton, that guy really knew how to sail through sea ice.

      I still don't think science is the problem here and I am grateful that it's experts who decide where taxpayer dollars are best spent on science.

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    9. Allan Gardiner

      Dr

      In reply to David Semmens

      I agree wholeheartedly with your finale David.

      Six blind elephants were discussing what men were like. After arguing they decided to find one and determine what it was like by direct experience. The first blind elephant felt the man and declared, 'Men are flat.' After the other blind elephants felt the man, they agreed.

      Moral:

      "We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning." - Werner Heisenberg

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    10. Allan Gardiner

      Dr

      In reply to David Semmens

      By being down there at that particular time, and becoming stuck fast so suddenly, our present day explorers learnt something that most probably would've escaped them had they not been there.

      "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley." - Robert Burns

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  2. Henry Verberne

    Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

    A clear article that clearly explains in a clear fashion that even the most extreme contrarian ought to be able to clearly understand of the interaction between land ice melting and sea ice growing.

    Sometimes life is a bit more complicated than the hand-waving arguments we so often see here that growing sea ice in the Antarctic (caused by interplay with melting sea ice) somehow invalidates the entire AGW theory.

    Referencing junk science sources of also less than impressive.

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    1. David Rennie

      IT Contractor

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Jim,
      What problem does this graphic present. I suspect WattsUp is trying to suggest that correlation of data between different measuring instruments in some way indicates a problem. As is typical for wattsUp this demonstrates a complete misrepresentation of the scientific process.

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    2. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to David Rennie

      David, NASA JPL [not Watts] is telling us that it's stuffed the Terrestrial Reference Frame of its earth-measuring satellites and that SLR for example which is showing 3.2mm/y by satellite and only 1.5mm/y by tide gauge is 113% out of whack and this is due to faulty TRF.

      Grace data errors don't seem to be quantified but they have been readjusting them all along.

      All the science papers done using this data are very flawed [not to mention the GCMs]

      But never mind, they will fix it in a few years.

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    3. Henry Verberne

      Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Sorry Jim but I do not give any credence to Anthony Watts.

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    4. In reply to Jim Inglis

      Comment removed by moderator.

    5. David Rennie

      IT Contractor

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Thats certainly not what the graphic is saying so I presume your information comes from totally unscientific source. I presume its WattsUp because that is a source of so much of this rubbish.

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    6. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      "Inglis is quoting the climate crank blog of Anthony Watts."

      That the best you can do hey Mike?

      About what you'd expect from a man-playing, messenger-shooter.

      FYI, all the data in that link of yours is from 2002-2010. Long before NASA JPL woke up that they had a problem with their TRF on all the earth measuring satellites.

      It all has to be recalculated. Oh dear.

      Now not only are sea levels not accelerating but the terrestrial ice that was supposed to be causing it isn't melting either.

      But no doubt you can explain the mechanism whereby sea ice increases to new records, land ice at altitude melts but sea levels don't rise.

      .

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    7. David Rennie

      IT Contractor

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Jim,
      No point making silly claims like 'sea level is not rising' unless you can substantiate them.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Current_sea_level_rise
      Sea levels rose 1.46 mm /yr from 1870-2004
      by 1.7 mm /yr from 1950-2009
      and by 3.3 mm / yr from 1993 to 2009
      According to NASA, http://climate.nasa.gov/interactives/global_ice_viewer we are losing a minimum of 200 billion tons of ice per year, which is going in to the sea to create rise.
      So please if you are going to make absurd claims, please provide evidence for them and not just graphs that come from undisclosed sources but papers that explain the contents of the graphs. You may wish to hide the sources of your graphs but that just discredits your arguments.

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    8. Peter Banks

      retired Civil Engineer

      In reply to David Rennie

      David,

      Thank you for your diligence in answering/countering all of Jim Inglis' wild statements. But perhaps some kudos is also due to Jim who obviously is trying to act as a Devil's Advocate in calling into question reason and evidence at every step.

      At least I suppose that is what he is trying to do as surely no sane, enquiring mind could believe what he says.

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    9. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to David Rennie

      David, NASA JPL have long invalidated these claims with that link I gave you above.

      Please try to keep up and not be in denial..

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    10. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to Peter Banks

      And what wild statements might those be, Peter?

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    11. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to David Rennie

      Also David, have you ever checked SLR over your lifetime?

      It's one small thing the average person can do if they are genuinely interested in science and not simply happy with parroting what others are more than happy to alarm them with.

      I know from observation that SLs have not increased in the last 68 years. In fact they are lower by ~ 150 mm.

      I realise there is room for some error here but when they are actually lower at the Highest Astronomical Tide of the year than they were in 1946, there is not too much to get alarmed about.

      How about you David?

      Do you ever look out the window?

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    12. David Rennie

      IT Contractor

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Jim,
      You still haven't provided a source, ie the article you are getting your ridiculous claims from, for the link, above which clearly is provided to you by WattsUp and Stephen Goddard.
      The graphic is simply a statement that GRASP will continue the work of GRACE and aim to meet the same scientific standards that NASA applies to its satellite missions.
      There is nothing in the graphic that says that the Grace data is wrong. If you think there is explain it don't just throw up a graphic and claim we should interpret it to suit the fantasies of the deniers.

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    13. David Rennie

      IT Contractor

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Jim,
      So now you are claiming that by looking out your window you are able to state with absolute confidence that Global, NOT local, sea levels have not risen by 4 inches, but have in fact dropped by 6 inches.
      You do know that the world is a globe and that you can only see a miniscule part of sea from your window?
      Scientists who have actually checked sea levels over the last 100 years say that sea levels rose about 4 inches GLOBALLY over that time but you want me to listen to 'Bondi Jim' who has been looking out his window every so often for the last 68 years and hasn't noticed a rise.
      You really do have to be joking.

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    14. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to Akshat Rathi

      Akshat, when you introduce controversial subjects for discussion that base their actions on the premise of global warming which is in turn based on very questionable science, I cannot see how you can claim that any discussion on the quality of the science involved for that GW is "way off topic".

      I agree, however, that people here should be more polite.

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  7. David Rennie

    IT Contractor

    Its good to read about this expedition from the scientists involved especially after the right wing media and politicians tried to paint it as a junket for junk scientists.
    The right wing don't seem to understand that the scientists are not advocating a particular view of climate change, they are reporting the evidence for it.
    The use of the pejorative term warmist to describe researchers who present evidence they disagree is but another demonstration of their attempts to present their own position as mainstream, when in reality they are the most extreme in Australian political society.

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