Just before Christmas 2013, a diesel-powered, ice-capable Russian research vessel named MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which was carrying scientists studying climate change, got stuck in the Antarctic ice. The scientists on the ship were not in any immediate risk or suffering any hardship conditions; they had plenty of fuel and supplies. The scientists have been evacuated from the ship via helicopter; the ship’s crew remained on board to continue efforts to free the ship.
Several climate change skeptics have been poking fun at the plight of the researchers. Some find it amusingly ironic that a group of people who are venturing to the polar regions in a ship powered by diesel engines to study global warming have been stranded by packed ice.
According to P. J. Gladnick, the fact that he has not seen headlines like “GLOBAL WARMING SCIENTISTS TRAPPED IN ANTARCTIC ICE” in major news outlets indicates a liberal media bias and a reluctance to note the inconvenient truth that the Antarctic remains the home of great deal of ice and frequent stormy weather conditions.
A commentary in the Wall Street Journal titled Carbon to the Rescue: Fossil fuels power retrieval of trapped climate scientists contained the following quote.
In an earlier age, explorers who so badly underestimated the expanse of polar ice would surely have perished. But the 74 passengers and crew of the Akademik Shokalskiy are thriving. An expedition spokesman reports that, “Surprisingly, all the passengers seem to be considering it the adventure of a lifetime.”
And why not? The rich abundance of our carbon-based economy has not only provided the means to sustain their lives, but even to post a cheerful sing-along on Youtube. And the helicopters and ships participating in the next rescue attempt aren’t powered by renewable-energy credits.
I agree with the Journal editors that the real life saver in this situation has been fossil fuel and the raw power that it provides humans to adapt to even the harshest weather the planet can throw at us. Internal combustion engines can turn voyages that were nearly impossible using muscle or animal power into routine events.
However, the event stimulated me to a different line of thinking, showing how the lenses with which we view the world are changed by experience.
Liquid hydrocarbons are a wonderful fuel that continue to serve human energy needs; but they are not the only energy source that provides reliable energy for transportation or heat. In fact, they are not even the best, cleanest or most capable option available for the task of providing the concentrated power that can make life at the ends of the earth both possible and reasonably comfortable.
I have a 1995 VHS tape with an A&E documentary titled Icebreaker to the North Pole. That film documents a July-August 1994 journey undertaken by the two most powerful Canadian and American icebreakers available at the time. The passengers on that trip were also scientists, many of whom were studying the long term effects of human emissions of CO2.
The documentary story line is full of drama and a shared sense of breaking new ground; there several times where the ships have to struggle to push through the ice. The video jacket summary of the story uses words like “treacherous” , “dangerous” and “thrilling” to describe the voyage. The scientists and crew members indicate that they feel like true pioneers on a challenging mission.
Along the way, the American ship breaks a propeller, losing one of the three blades and causing that shaft to be unusable. Fortunately the ship was equipped with three propulsion shafts and was not put completely out of commission.
Just as the two North American ships approach their final destination, they become aware that they are not alone at the pole. They learn that the Yamal, a privately owned Russian nuclear icebreaker is carrying passengers, including than 40 school-aged entertainers and their parents. When the Yamal reaches the pole the child entertainers go out onto the ice to perform a show of singing, dancing and musical instruments. The production was filmed for Russian television; it made the trip to the North Pole seem quite casual and routine.
In contrast to the careful plodding of the smaller diesel powered vessels, the Yamal shows off that it is able to tear through ice up to ten feet thick while maintaining a speed in excess of 12 knots.
Since the ship is nuclear powered, it is also able to remain in the Arctic indefinitely. It can carry plenty of food and has no need to refuel. The scientists and the coast guard officers are impressed by the capabilities. One of the coast guard officers says he would love to take the Yamal for a spin and is amazed that that it is able to churn through the ice, turning it into “soup”. Here is a quote from the film:
Wayne Grady (Narrator): Meeting up with the Yamal could have some interesting repercussions, not only for its Russian owners who are eager to spread the word that their ship is for hire but also to the North American scientists who, like Dan Lugen can’t help speculating about a science platform as large and capable as the Yamal.
Did you look at the Yamal as a platform for science?
Dan Lugen (climate scientist): I think all of the scientists have thought about that. There is just an enormous amount you could do if you could be up here indefinitely.
Kathy Ellis: When we arrived at the North Pole, measuring these trace levels of radioactivity in the Arctic Ocean, I initially was terrified that all of a sudden all of my samples would be contaminated with the ship. I did collect a few samples around the Yamal just to verify that we weren’t tracing the Yamal through the Arctic and we weren’t able to detect any effluent from the ship.
There is another memorable scene in the film where the senior officers of the North American ships visit the Yamal to share a meal with its officers and passengers. The children are given the opportunity to ask some questions; one of the Russian officers serves as the translator. The first question is “Are your ice breakers the most powerful in your countries?” Both the Canadian and the American captains say “Yes.” The second question is “Then why do you move so slowly in the ice?”
After all three ships have completed their scheduled tasks in at the pole, the Yamal leads the way out of the packed ice, maintaining a slower than normal speed so that the North American ships can stay in its relatively ice free wake.
Unfortunately, I do not yet have sharable clips from the documentary, but here is a video that someone else has posted on YouTube with footage and information about the capabilities of one of the Yamal’s sister ships.
Note: In case you had a question about the numbers mentioned in the above video, it is useful to know that nuclear reactors on board ships are often described using their thermal power rating. That helps to explain why there is one part that claims that the ship has two reactors that produce 175 MW each and then explains that the ship produces about 75,000 shaft horsepower.
It’s a shame that the Russian nuclear icebreakers seem to have been unavailable to attempt a rescue of the MV Akademik Shokalskiy. It would have been a great time for some positive nuclear energy PR while the world was paying attention.
Andrew Revkin, New York Times (December 31, 2013) Rescue Efforts for Trapped Antarctic Voyage Disrupt Serious Science
Christine Hauser, New York Times (January 3, 2014) Stranded Antarctic Ship Story, Like the Ice, Will Not Let Go