On Christmas Eve a team of British scientists and engineers took the difficult decision to abandon their attempts to reach a subglacial lake in Antarctica. The hugely ambitious project aimed to drill through three kilometres of solid ice to reach Lake Ellsworth in a search for evidence of Earth's past climate and any life forms able to survive in such extreme conditions.
The lake is situated on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the team, led by the British Antarctic Survey, set up camp on the ice in December 2012. The intention was to drill down through the ice using hot water to create a borehole to the lake, and then deploy equipment to sample the lake and its sediments.
Good progress was made initially, despite the need to repair the boiler used to heat the drilling water. However, the boring had to stop when the team was unable to create a water-filled cavity 300 metres below the surface of the ice. This cavity was supposed to connect the main borehole with a secondary one intended to bring the water back up to the surface and balance pressure. Ultimately, the additional time taken in trying to achieve this link meant there was insufficient fuel to finish the task.
Despite their obvious disappointment, the members of the team took some positives from the expedition; they said they learned much during the process and that their equipment, engineered to remain sterile and survive the extreme conditions, was thoroughly tested. As they began the long process of returning everything to the UK, they were already planning a return trip to have another go at some future date.
Full details of the mission can be found on their website: http://www.antarctica.ac.uk/bas_research/projects/ellsworth.php
New Year extremes
For several days around the New Year, Australia experienced one of its most extreme heatwaves on record. This in turn led to outbreaks of bush fires across several states. The Bureau of Meteorology reported that the final four months of 2012 saw the highest average maximum temperatures ever recorded for the period.
The extreme heat began building up in Western Australia before extending across much of the continent. The conditions were blamed on below-normal rainfall and a late arrival of the monsoon. Temperatures reached the mid- to upper 40s across inland regions, accompanied by hot and gusty winds enhancing the fire danger.
Even some coastal areas baked in the summer sun, with the temperature in Adelaide exceeding 45°C – whilst an all-time highest temperature, in a record going back 120 years, was reported from Hobart (Tasmania), where a reading of 41.8°C exceeded the previous highest, reached in 1976, by a full degree. As a result, the wildfire risk was raised to its highest level, catastrophic, as fire destroyed countless buildings on the island state. Thousands were stranded on the Tasman Peninsula and, with roads cut off, were forced to evacuate to Hobart by sea.
Meanwhile, parts of the Northern Hemisphere, including eastern Europe, China and North America, were seeing temperatures at the opposite extreme, with snow. Even northern India suffered unusually cold weather early in the New Year, claiming lives, causing travel disruption and leading to schools closing.
Record high carbon emissions
The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, based at the University of East Anglia, recently announced their global carbon dioxide emissions figures for 2012. The Global Carbon Project analysis, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, shows that global CO2 emissions were expected to reach a record high of 35.6 billion tonnes last year. This equates to a 2.6% rise on 2011, putting the latest figures 58% above levels at the time of the Kyoto Protocol in 1990.
The analysis also shows that the greatest contributors to global carbon emissions were China (at 28%), the USA (16%) and European Union (11%). China's figures have risen nearly 10% compared with the previous year, amounting to 6.6 tonnes of CO2 per person. However, this is still considerably lower than the USA's 17.2 tonnes per person.
Experts at the Centre say that the continued growth in emissions means that warnings by the scientific community of the potential consequences are being ignored.
2013 global temperature forecast
The news on carbon emissions came around the same time as the Met Office and University of East Anglia issued their global temperature forecast for 2013. Their report says that, after taking into account the range of uncertainty in both observations and forecast data, it is very likely that 2013 will be one of the warmest ten years on record.
This year is also likely to be warmer than 2012, which was provisionally ranked ninth in the global series going back to 1850. The forecast is for the global average temperature to be between around 0.4 and 0.7 degC higher than the 1961–1990 average.
Nacreous cloud display
There was a fine display of polar stratospheric, or nacreous, clouds over many parts of Scotland on the evening of Sunday 9 December 2012. Reports at the time suggested it was one of the most widespread sightings of such clouds since 1999.
Unusually, perhaps, the clouds, with their characteristic mountain-wave streamlined shapes, were seen not just to the lee of the main Highland mountain ranges, for example in Aberdeen, but also to the lee of the much smaller Harris hills in the Western Isles.
Thanks to Dr Edward Graham of the University of the Highlands and Islands for this information.