Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo have apparently drowned while doing research in the arctic. As I am appalled by the reporting of the event, I figured I should offer a layman’s commentary.
First of all, the two men were well liked, very experienced, and had taught many inexperienced students to appreciate the beauty and majesty of the arctic. Second, they worked very hard to give us something far better than the imaginary data created by computer models in what is basically a virtual reality. They gathered actual FACTS, on a harsh reality that isn’t virtual, with a focus on how best to compliment the factual data, gathered from satellites far overhead, with down-to-earth data gathered on-the-ground. They knew all the dangers involved in research on arctic ice, yet preferred it and relished it. Lastly, when one fell through the ice, it seems highly probable the second died trying to save the first.
The press payed little attention to their plight when they first went missing, and only seemed to become interested when the students who had learned from the men created a bit of a ruckus on the web. Even then, the men were not honored as much as they were used. They were used to promote the tired agenda of Global Warming, and the “Arctic Sea-Ice Death Spiral”. Particularly annoying to me was the emotional cry, “Did Global Warming kill Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo?”
It seems to me that, if one was going to become emotional, one should grieve over the loss of two good men, whose expertise is irreplaceable. Men and woman willing to face the dangers of the arctic are not a dime a dozen, and between them Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo represented a quarter century of experience.
If I should die, I very much hope people miss me. I’ll be pretty annoyed if, as I (hopefully) look down from a cloud, I see people yammering about politics, and completely ignoring me. While it may be true that the sheer fraud involved in Global Warming caused me such frustration that it prematurely aged me, if people talk about Global Warming at my funeral then the politicians will have won, for what I care more about, and what I basically am, will be forgotten and ignored.
In like manner it doesn’t matter what the politics of Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo were. They matter. Their love of the arctic matters. Their love of their students matters. The hard data they felt was worth gathering matters, (because it mattered to them).
That being said, I’ll descend to the level of the press, and address the issue the media claims matters more than the beauty of individuals, and their their life’s work.
What killed Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo? Falling through thin ice killed them. How could such experienced researchers make such a mistake? They miscalculated. How could they miscalculate, with all their experience?
Hey, it happens. I’m 62 years old, and sometimes think I’m an authority, and then get put in my place by a five-year-old child. (I run a Childcare on my farm). However I make mistakes that may embarrass, but don’t kill. The arctic isn’t like that. If you make a mistake in the arctic you get no second chance.
The problem with being old, and supposedly wise, is that it sometimes makes you too cavalier. You fail to don a dry suit when walking on thin ice, because you have never seen a frozen-over lead fail to support a man’s weight, when it is covered in snow in early May. However it doesn’t matter if you are correct 99.99% of the time, when you are walking across ice in a .01% situation.
The definition of “cavalier” is, “showing a lack of proper concern; offhand,” and salt in the wounds of grief can be found in Marc Cornelissen’s final messages, one of which states they stripped down to their long underwear, and then jests, ““I’m glad you guys don’t have pictures of us on the ice. But it was the only way to deal with the heat.” This was likely done on thick, multiyear ice, but then Cornelissen notices so-called “baby ice” ahead, and states, “We think we see thin ice in front of us, which is quite interesting, and we’re going to research some of that if we can.”
If they had donned dry suits before venturing out onto the thin ice, they could have survived a long time in the 29° (-1.7 Celsius) water. (Last year the two adventurers who hiked to the Pole swam across leads of open water in their dry suits.) However if they fell through the ice in ordinary outfits, and especially if they fell through in long underwear, Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo had roughly 180 seconds to respond to the emergency, before hypothermia hit. The one who hadn’t fallen through might have time to turn on the distress signal, but likely wouldn’t have had time to don a dry suit, as his buddy fought for life only yards away. Likely the buddy on land attempted to get close enough to reach out with some sort of pole or rope, and then the ice broke under him as well.
Sometimes my imagination gets too vivid. My wife kicked me out of bed last night because I was thrashing about in a sort of agony, imagining what Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo went through. The only good thing is that it was likely brief for them, a matter of minutes, whereas it was hours of insomnia for me.
The agony asks the question, “How could you? How could you make such a mistake?”
As an old man who still makes mistakes at age 62, I think the answer is that the ice “should” have been safe. Ordinarily any flat area of snow-covered ice is safe, in early May. It took an unusual combination of events to create this unsafe ice.
Even though they were investigating an area where the ice is usually thick, such ice is often riven by fractures called “leads”. Here is a satellite view of the ice in that area from 2013.
These “leads” in the sea-ice are created by storms, gales which howl over the arctic when the weather pattern is “meridianal”, and which are usually absent when the pattern is “zonal”. These variations seem to be determined in part by a Pacific cycle called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and an Atlantic cycle called the Atlantic Multidecadal Occilation, (AMO), however much more study is needed, so I’m not going to go there. Instead I’ll shove a vastness into a nutshell, and state a “Zonal” pattern has our northern hemisphere’s jet stream describe a nice circle around the Pole, and keeps the cold up where it belongs, but a “meridianal” pattern has the jet stream loopy, and has the cold air pouring down here in New Hampshire where it does not belong, and even further south, freezing over Deleware Bay last winter.
When arctic air is busy making very thick sea-ice down south where it doesn’t belong, so bergs this thick can ground southeast of me on Cape Cod (which is as far south as Spain),
you might expect the Pole to be robbed of cold air, and its ice to be thinner, but such is not necessarily the case.
When a loopy jet stream hurls arctic air south of even me, here in New Hampshire, warm air must rush up towards the arctic to replace it. That warm air clashes with arctic air, and brews up the big storms over the Pole that fracture the ice. However this does not decrease the amount of ice. Instead it exposes more water to be frozen, and actually increases the total amount of ice, as measured by PIOMAS “volume”.
However if you are up there walking on the ice, none of this matters. What matters is the ice you are walking on. There may be maps of your area showing where the leads are forming:
And there may be maps showing where the pressure ridges are forming:
but such fancy maps don’t usually do much good if you are a man who is actually on the ice, facing a flat stretch of snow-covered “baby-ice”. Such a man cannot stop to research a satellite close-up of the ice he faces, (though perhaps his support crew could do such work). Instead the man on the ice has to arrive at a snap judgement using his own experience. He functions in the present tense, and is a mile down the path of his trek, before a researcher in front of a computer would dare OK the first step. Sadly, in the case of Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo, such first-hand, present-tense experience wasn’t enough.
As a layman with all the advantages of 20-20 hindsight I can see how treacherous the ice was, in terms of what one would ordinarily expect. Ordinarily a newly-opened lead is blue and glassy with freshly frozen ice, without snow on it. Ordinarily, because the Pole is basically a desert and precipitation is uncommon, it takes some time before ice has even an inch of snow on it. New ice on new leads is obvious, and shown by the ice being uneven, and stepping down to the newer ice. A flat area of ordinary “baby ice”, when it is covered by inches of snow, can usually be depended upon to bear the weight of a helicopter or even a bulldozer. Here is a picture of a bulldozer airlifted to the Pole to clear an airstrip for jets to land on the Barneo base this year.
The ice that doomed Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo was recently formed on a lead riven by a recent gale north of Canada, and that storm not only created a lead of open water, but snowed on the skim of ice that swiftly forms when air temperatures are well below the freezing point of salt water. And, even with the warmth of the midnight sun rising and running around and around the horizon, temperatures are still cold up there. In fact, for the first time in a long time, the cold isn’t being exported down to New Hampshire and other southern lands, and the Pole is below normal.
Ordinarily, at temperatures 15 degrees below the freezing point of salt water, a lead would swiftly freeze over to a thickness not only thick enough to support a man, but to support a 1600 pound polar bear. There are wonderful pictures of enormous bears cautiously crossing ice as clear as a picture window, though the best I can find right now is this:
Ordinarily, this early in May, by the time the arid arctic skies dust enough snow to cover the ice, the ice is already thick enough to drive a car on, or even land a jet upon. A sort of default conclusion kicks in, and assumes the ice is safe. However this was not an ordinary situation.
Even as the ice was forming snow was falling, and snow insulated the ice and slowed further thickening of the ice. What is more, the storm allowed a plume of milder air to invade that particular area, so there was no air fifteen-degrees-below-the-freezing-point-of-salt-water to make the ice thicker, even without the snow insulating the ice. Lastly, gales likely had drifted and smoothed the snow, hiding the step-down and step-up features that ordinarily alert one to changes in the age of the ice.
In conclusion, Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo were walking out over ice as thin as two inches, covered by a couple of inches of snow. This state-of-affairs almost never happens. That area had experienced 200 days with air temperatures below the freezing point of salt water, and was an area that usually only receives a half inch of snow each month. The odds are very against there ever being only two inches of ice covered by two inches of snow, but I suppose the odds are also against the gun going off, when you play Russian Roulette.
As a result of this tragedy I’m quite sure well-meaning people will make a new rule; IE: “Before any man walks over “baby ice” he must put on a dry suit.”
This may seem to make good sense, but it fails to recognize something that made Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo as admirable as they were.
If those two had obeyed the rules of safety, they never would have been out on the ice in the first place. What killed them is only one of a number of things that can kill people who venture into that landscape, not the least of which is a 1600 pound bear. If they really wanted to play it safe, they would have chosen to be tellers at a bank.
The thing of it is that not even tellers at a bank are safe. Some crazed robber might storm in and shoot a neat hole between the teller’s eyes, for some green paper worth far less than the teller’s life. (Being a bank teller is actually a dangerous job, but someone has to do it.)
If my favorite teller at the local bank suffered outrageous fortune, and was shot, I’d rather remember them, and what made them my favorite, than spend the funeral forgetting them and instead arguing about the politics of the “haves” and the “have-nots”.
In like manner, when Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo suffer outrageous fortune, and drown in the arctic, I’d rather remember them, and what made them loved by many, than yammer like the media does, about Global Warming.