Today, while shopping at lunchtime for some last minute year end supplies, I got one of the strangest cell-phone calls ever. It was from my friend John Coleman, the founder of the Weather Channel and Chief meteorologist at KUSI-TV in San Diego. He was calling via cell phone from his car, and he was on his way into the TV station early.
He started off by saying, “Anthony, we have a really strange situation here”.
Then to my surprise, he relayed a conversation he had just had; a person on the Akademik Shokalskiy had reached out, because they didn’t have adequate weather data on-board. At first, I thought John was pulling my leg, but then as he gave more details, I realized he was serious.
What had happened was that the US Coast Guard had received a message from the ship, requesting weather and wind information for Antarctica. That got relayed to someone at the Scripps oceanographic Institute in San Diego, and it went to John’s weekend KUSI meteorologist Dave Scott. Dave had worked with a scientist who is now on the US Coast Guard IceBreaker Polar Star, and they had logged the request for weather for forecast data from Akademik Shokalskiy. That’s how all this got started.
The message was that they needed better weather information on the ship than they had, specifically about wind and how it might affect the breakup of sea ice. John asked me to gather everything I had on the area and send it, and also to help him contact Joe D’Aleo of WeatherBell Analytics, because somehow John’s cellphone had gotten stuck into some sort of “private caller” mode and Joe wasn’t answering his phone due to how the incoming call looked.
My first thought was that no matter how much we’ve been criticizing the expedition for its silliness, that if such a request had reached all the way from Antarctica to me, I’d do everything I could to help.
I told John “give me 15 minutes”, which was about the time I’d need to get out of COSTCO and get back to my office and send along some things I knew would help.
I immediately called Joe D’Aleo at WeatherBell, who was as incredulous as I at the request, and asked him to call John Coleman right away. I explained to him that we had to remember that we were dealing with a Russian ship, not a military ship, but a charter vessel and they likely didn’t have all the tools that American meteorologists had and may not even know where to look for better data. I also pointed out that the Australian scientists on-board were climatologists, and not operational weather forecasters, and finding this sort of weather data probably wasn’t in their skill set.
Joe started working from the WeatherBell end, I finished my shopping and headed back to the office. As I drove, I started thinking about the situation with the ship there. They had wind compressing the ice into shore, with the Akademik Shokalskiy in the middle, and the wind wasn’t changing. They needed a wind shift in order to ease the pressure on the ice but they had no idea when that might happen. It was a waiting game, and as we know, the longer a ship remains trapped in sea ice, the greater its chances of having a hull breach due to the pressure.
I knew just what to send, because it was something that had been discussed several times by commenters on WUWT.
When I got back to the office, I no more than pulled up the bookmark and press send on the email with a brief description of the operational weather data model that covered the region and John Coleman was on the phone again. He asked me to talk to Dave Scott and explain what I had just sent over. I called Dave immediately and relayed the email.
I sent a live link that provided this image of Antarctica, and I noted in a Tweet about the same time:
Just had a request for Antarctic wind and FC data come up via Scripps from #spiritofmawson ship. KUSI, WeatherBell, WUWT all happy to help.
— Watts Up With That (@wattsupwiththat) December 31, 2013
This map shows winds for area ship is trapped in. Waiting for katabatic winds to return which will clear ice. pic.twitter.com/XqCU6NfWWK
— Watts Up With That (@wattsupwiththat) December 31, 2013
Dave listened intently to my explanation and then thanked me saying “this is exactly what we need”. I then started to do some research into the extensive library of operational forecast products put together by our friend Dr. Ryan Maue of WeatherBell which can be seen at http://models.weatherbell.com/ About that same time I get a new email from Joe D’Aleo, and he had sorted out the maps needed and had sent an email to John, Dave, and I.
In a couple of minutes John Coleman was back on the phone to me, he wanted my assessment of the maps. I had looked at what was happening and saw what I thought might be an opening in 7-8 days based on the forecast graphics from WeatherBell, where the winds would shift to offshore in the area where Akademik Shokalskiy was stuck. Like we discussed in the WUWT post yesterday Polynyas are very important for marine life and cooling the oceans I had hoped that a coastal polyna might open up near the ship. We also discussed the possibility of a low pressure system passing nearby that might help break up the ice. I didn’t express much hope for that.
The problem is that they are in a catch-22 now, they need strong offshore winds to help blow the sea ice out to open water, but at the same time they need calm or light winds for a safe helicopter rescue.
John Coleman and Dave Scott put together a video news story which ran on the KUSI 6PM News tonight. I was interviewed for the story, and you can watch it here:
Watching the wind is the key to the way out of the situation the Akademik Shokalskiy is in. This near real-time wind model is worth watching, and it updates every three hours with new observations, click on the image to start it.
Note the green circle marker, which is the approximate location the Akademik Shokalskiy is at. Winds are running parallel to the coast, and pushing ice up against the edge of the Commonwealth Bay.
Despite the irony and folly of the situation, I’m sure readers will join me in the hope that everyone makes it off the ship safely, whether it is by helicopter or by the ship being freed from the ice.
- All scientists and passengers to be taken off ship stuck in Antarctic Ice (wattsupwiththat.com)