First Attempted Murder in Antarctica

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Last week, near the end of the polar winter, a Russian engineer, Sergy Savitsky, reportedly stabbed a co-worker, Oleg Beloguzov, in the chest with a knife. Savitsky claimed that he did not intend to kill his co-worker, but the wound was deep enough to lacerate a portion of the victim’s heart. Beloguzov was rushed to a hospital in Chile and is in stable condition. Savitky voluntarily surrendered to the Bellingshausen station manager.

The motive for the attempted murder: Beloguzov had a habit of telling Savitsky the endings of books his co-worker wanted to read. His murderous rage may have been stoked by alcohol.

I visited the Bellingshausen Station in the summer of 1969 along with a half-dozen of my shipmates from the USCGC Glacier. A primitive lunch and two large glasses of vodka did not lead to an angry confrontation with our Cold War enemies, but rather to a spirit of international camaraderie.

I discovered while doing research for my book that the long polar night and confined quarters often leads to tense situations. Over time, minor grievances become major ones. But this is the first time I’ve heard of an attempted murder (the Filchner expedition in 1912 came close.) If we had spent the polar winter cooped up with the Russian crewmembers, major confrontations would have been hard to avoid, whether fueled by alcohol or not.

When the Glacier was trapped in the Weddell Sea icepack, like Shackleton, the forty crewmembers picked to winter-over on the ship were chosen based on their technical qualifications, without regard to their ability to peacefully co-exist during such a stressful situation. In my professional opinion, that was a mistake. The near murder of the Russian crewmember highlights the risks associated with ignoring the personality characteristics of wintering-over personnel.

 

 

Icebergs

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I was recently watching a nature special about animals in Nova Scotia. Some of the shots of animals living along the coast included icebergs in the background. I was surprised to see an Arctic iceberg that far south, but it was small—about the size of a tennis court. Surprisingly, I did not see any icebergs this May when I sailed around the northern part of Norway—far north of the Arctic Circle. I learned that icebergs are less common off Norway because of the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream. And climate change has significantly decreased the amount of ice in the Arctic. Ships now routinely transit the fabled ‘Northwest Passage’.

If you want to see icebergs, the place to go is Antarctica. There are seven times as many icebergs there as in the Arctic. And the larger icebergs there dwarf anything seen in the Arctic. I was dumbfounded when I saw my first huge iceberg in Antarctica in 1969 during my five-month deployment aboard the USCGC Glacier—at the time the largest icebreaker in the free world. Imagine seeing and iceberg as large as Rhode Island or colossal ice sculptures in almost any conceivable shape.

Once an iceberg breaks off a glacial sheet, it is forever changing. It is hard not to be fascinated to some degree by icebergs. They are beautiful, but dangerous. Brilliantly obvious, but mostly hidden. White as fluffy snow, but with the tensile strength of steel. Seemingly stationary, but always moving.

In 2017 a section of the Larsen Ice Shelf broke off. It was headline news, because it was as big as the state of Delaware. This iceberg won’t cause sea levels to rise because it was floating in the ocean long before it broke off, but the land ice dammed up further behind it eventually could.

This huge free-floating ice mass will remain in the area of the Antarctic Peninsula—the area most frequented by tourists. It will drift in the circular currents of the Weddell Sea, break up and eventually disappear.  You could see a section of this berg during the upcoming summer season in Antarctica. (When it’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s summer down there.) And large parts—maybe the size of Manhattan—will be there next summer, too.

The Fram - World-Famous Record-Breaking Ship

Last week I was thrilled to see the totally intact Fram in the Oslo museum dedicated to it. The ship was designed by one of my heroes, Fridtjof Nansen - arguably Norway’s most famous citizen based on his accomplishments as a polar explorer, inventor, scientist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner. He designed the Fram to withstand the pressures of the polar ice pack. It became the model for all subsequent icebreakers, including the one on which I served, the USCGC Glacier. Like the Fram, the Glacier had a rounded bottom so that it would be forced out of the icepack rather than crushed by it. Nansen’s design clearly worked. The Fram survived three years frozen in the polar ice pack between 1893 and 1896. The ship also took Roald Amundsen to Antarctica when he became the first to reach the South Pole. To this day it remains the record holder for the ship that has traveled the combined furthest north and furthest south.

In some ways the Fram was even better suited for surviving the icepack than the Glacier because it had a retractable rudder and two-bladed prop that was protected in the vertical position by the rudder. US Coast Guard icebreakers have suffered more than a few damaged props, particularly in the Antarctic where I was deployed.

Although the Fram was built of wood, it was built to withstand stresses three times stronger than the pressure it took to force it out of the ice. The bow and stern were strengthened with oak 1.25 m thick. The sides were 70 to 80 cm thick and had three layers: the two inner ones of oak and the outer one of greenheart. The hull was supported by 400 naturally-grown knee-shaped oak ribs bolted together. The pure grain of these naturally shaped oak knees made them far stronger. Using naturally shaped wood segments was a technique perfected by the ancient Vikings. There was no more than 30 to 40 cm space between the ribs.

As far as I know, the hull of the Fram was never punctured. In contrast, the Glacier’s hull was punctured by the tongue of a submerged iceberg. Although our outer hull was torn, the inner hull buckled but did not give way. It was a close call.

The Fram had a couple of things aboard that we did not have on the Glacier—an upright piano and a gramophone. Nansen knew that he had to provide all of the entertainment he could to help keep up morale during the cold dark polar nights.

Although the Fram was tough, it was small, measuring 128’ by 34’. And their “staterooms” were far from stately. I would have needed to sleep diagonally in one of those staterooms to completely stretch out my 6’ 2” frame. Only that would not have worked because that space would have been shared with at least one other sailor. In comparison, the small interior stateroom I had to myself aboard the Glacier was a veritable palace.

 

 A thrill to see Fram in Oslo. Designed by  Nansen. It survivedcrushing polar ice 1893-96. Took Amundsen to Antarctica. Furthest north to south travel of any ship ever.

The US Budgets to Build its First Icebreaker since 1976

 

At the present time, the US has only two icebreakers, the medium powered “Healy,” built in 2000, and the  heavy-duty Polar Star that was commissioned in 1976, sailed until 2006, and returned to service in 2013after being refitted. The new US icebreaker is scheduled to launch in 2023.

The Russians have forty icebreakers, including massively powered nuclear icebreakers. The US had no heavy-duty icebreaker between 2006 and 2013 and had to totally rely on other countries, particularly Russia, to provide icebreaker support for our stations in Antarctica.

Given our deteriorating relationship with Russia, it would be foolish to think we can rely upon them for support in the future. Without icebreakers to cut channels in the Antarctic ice for heavy cargo ships, our ability to function in Antarctica would be seriously compromised, as would our ability to continue to do important polar research.

Icebreakers take a heavy beating and are constantly in dry dock for repairs. The icebreaker that I was on, the Glacier, was never quite the same after the beating it took during our 1969/1970 deployment. In spite of many retrofits, it had to be taken out of service in 1987.

The need for our own icebreakers is particularly important now that the Northwest Passage is open to passenger ships and is strategically important because of the oil reserves there. Even though that passage is much more open, invariably ships will get into trouble and need the Coast Guard to come to the rescue. In 2013, when two smaller icebreakers ended up trapped in the icepack off Antarctica, are one heavy-duty icebreaker, the Polar Star, was the only one in the region powerful enough to save them.

More US icebreakers are required. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Charles W. Ray said, “our threshold requirement for your-round access and to protect national security, economic, environmental and maritime interests is three heavy and three medium icebreakers.” I am pleased to see that the US is finally starting to take our need for our own icebreakers seriously.

My Adventure at the LA Times Festival of Books

Sure, I expected going to Antarctica as a Doctor aboard an icebreaker would be an adventure, but going to a book fair? I was so organized prior to leaving for the Los Angeles Times Book Fair. I had everything mapped out and had even bought optional tickets in advance.

As I pulled into the first parking lot, the attendant was there to collect twelve dollars. I reached for my wallet only to realize that it was resting safely on my desk back home—an hour drive away. Damn, I thought, I won’t find any free parking nearby, I’ll have to go home. But then I thought, Maybe I’ll get lucky. I did, only four blocks away.

After ransacking my car and workout bag, I found three dollars in coins. I knew that would not even buy a hot dog. Rather than bemoaning my situation, I decided to label it “An Adventure” and proceeded accordingly.

Prior to the first lecture I sat two seats away from an elderly lady, meaning someone about my age. Although an introvert by nature, I thought this was not a good time to be shy or reserved. I started a conversation. She was also an author. As she was telling me about her most recent book, she opened up a large purse that was half-filled with food.

She asked, “Would you like a candy bar? I have lots of food.”

“Actually, I’d love one,” I said, “turns out I forgot my wallet today.”

“Then take another one.”

I couldn’t resist.

Then she said, “I could give you five dollars.”

I was amazed by her generosity, but declined her offer. Besides, I knew a true adventurer could survive a long time with only two candy bars.

As I left the lecture hall, I noticed that one of the exhibitor was passing out free iced coffee. Bingo! – a two course lunch.

I checked out other exhibitors and found one selling a book called “The Last Places on Earth.” I started talking with the author, Gary Mancuso. We had a very pleasant conversation and shared some of our thoughts about Antarctica.

I told him, “I’d like to buy a copy of your book, but I forgot my wallet.”

He said, “Do you have your cell phone and PayPal?”

“I do,” I said, “but I don’t know how to use it for PayPal.”

Between the two of us, we figured it out and I left with a signed copy. I thought, “That’s cool. I learned something new.”

Following a third lecture, I was getting thirsty. It was a hot sunny day. Voilà—I found another exhibitor passing out cold diet drinks. I sat in the shade and polished off my second candy bar. I was good for another half hour, but then my stomach started crumbling. I wanted some real food.

I checked out some of the food trucks. Everything was twelve dollars or more. Even the hot dogs cost eight dollars. Then it occurred to me, “You’re on a college campus. Think like a starving student.”

I went in search of ramen.

One dollar later I was seated at a table in the shade outside and enjoying  tasty noodles. Feeling chatty, I began a conversation with a young schoolteacher sitting nearby. He was there to learn more about children’s books. I told him about forgetting my wallet and how happy I was to be eating ramen. We shared thoughts about times in both of our lives when we had been quite poor and the positive aspects of such an experience. He offered to give me some money. I thanked him and told him he was the second person to have made such an offer.

 I said, “It’s amazing how nice people are, particularly when you need them.” I laughed and added, “I’m a retired doctor. I’m not poor anymore.”

There was a woman in the crowd behind us who apparently did not hear that last comment. She came striding towards me with a five dollar bill in her hand and yelling, “Here, take it.”

I said, “It’s okay, I’m fine.” I waved her off and turned away, embarrassed. For a second I stared into my cup of noodles.

Then I heard the fellow next to me say, “She left that.”

There almost under my nose was a five dollar bill. I turned to protest, only to see the woman disappear into the crowd as she yelled back, “It’s okay. I’m a mother.”

Adventures come in all sizes. I’m so glad I forgot my wallet.

 

 

Will Steger: World-Class Polar Explorer & Educator

Last week I had a great conversation with Will Steger. We both grew up in Richfield, Minnesota—a suburb on the southern border of Minneapolis. Our houses were about 150 yards apart. We reminisced about the fun we had as kids building forts, digging tunnels, playing Monopoly in my basement, and rafting on Woodlake before it became a marsh. We grew up in in a stable and safe neighborhood adjacent to open fields, hills and ponds— the kind of neighborhood where people never bothered to lock their doors because it was so safe, although Garrison Keillor noted, “Of course those locks were frozen shut six months of the year.”

Us kids learned to adapt to long winters and sub-zero temperatures, but Will took it to a completely different level. When he was nineteen years old, he bought a plot of wilderness land in northern Minnesota where he built a house and learned more of his survival techniques, including how to handle a sled dog team. He said he needed the sled dogs because his house was two miles from the nearest road.

I lost touch with Will when I went off to college and medical school and settled in California, but then I started hearing about his exploits, like the first confirmed dogsled journey to the North Pole without resupply in 1986 and his unsupported dogsled 1,600 mile south to north traverse of Greenland in 1988. In 1990, he received worldwide recognition for leading six members of the International Trans-Antarctic Expedition across Antarctica the long way— from the Antarctic Peninsula in the West to the Mirny Russian Base in the East, a distance about 1000 miles more than the distance between New York and Los Angeles. During his traverse of Antarctica, Will described “the coldest conditions imaginable on the planet,” like “-120° wind chills.” To my mind, his heroic, first-ever, dogsled crossing of the frigid, stormy and hazardous Antarctic continent ranks up there with the accomplishments of Sir Ernest Shackleton.

 Will’s exploits have given him first-hand knowledge of the effects of global climate change. He first saw Antarctica on July 26, 1989 from the window of a Twin Otter charter plane. (Too bad he missed the thrill of crossing Drakes passage on a ship to get to Antarctica.)  As he crossed the spine of mountains on the Antarctic Peninsula, he was shocked to find open waters dotted with tabular icebergs in the Weddell Sea. Normally there is dense sea ice in that area year-round, particularly along the western edge of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The first time I saw the Weddell Sea in January 1970 aboard the USCGC Glacier the sea surface was seventy-five to one hundred percent covered with pack ice—and we were not only further north than the location Will described, but also it was during the Antarctic summer. During the Antarctic winter, there is a fourfold expansion of sea ice around the continent, meaning Will should have been seeing solid icepack even before he reached the northernmost portion of the continent. A sixty-year record of temperatures now show that winter temperatures on the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula have increased by 11°F and annual average temperatures by 5°F.

Will also experienced the effects of global warming in 1995 when he led a team of five scientists and educators on an epic 1,200 mile expedition between Russia and Ellesmere Island, Canada. They traversed the polar ice pack utilizing dogsleds and canoe sleds. The feat was much harder than he had anticipated because of the unexpected absence of polar ice. The going was much slower when they had to paddle through open waters. There is now so little sea ice during the summer that cruise ships can routinely sail the Northwest Passage.

When I spoke with Will last week he indicated that one of his inspirational heroes is also one of mine, the Norwegian polar explorer, inventor, researcher and humanitarian, Fridtjof Nansen. After his legendary polar explorations, Nansen went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for the work he did to help resettle refugees. Like Nansen, Will expressed the need to continue to contribute to society following his major accomplishments as an explorer. He said, “Nansen’s (commitment) was refugees, mine’s education.”

Will has done an excellent job fostering education. In 1991, he co-founded the Center for Global Environmental Education. Two years later he founded the World School for Adventure Learning at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota). In 2006, Will established the Will Steger Foundation to educate and encourage people to search for solutions to climate change. In 2014, he established the Steger Wilderness Center to demonstrate among other things practical solutions for creating a sustainable planet.

Over the course of his career, Will has received multiple awards and acknowledgments. In 1995 he received, for example, the John Oliver La Gorce Medal from the National Geographic Society. The medal is awarded for “accomplishments in geographic exploration, in the sciences and for public service to advance international understanding.” Other recipients of the award include Amelia Earhart, Robert Peary, Roald Amundsen and Jacques Cousteau. I think Will richly deserves to be held in the same high esteem as these world-famous recipients, but it bothers me that he is not nearly as famous as most of them. For example, this past week I asked several people if they had ever heard of Will Steger. They had not, but they had all heard of Jacques Cousteau. I am a scuba diver, a Francophile and a big fan of Jacques Cousteau, but up much bigger fan of Will Steger, and unlike the other luminaries I just mentioned, Will is still very much alive and engaged in tremendous work.

I encourage you all to learn more about Will Steger and his educational activities, particularly his efforts regarding climate change. He’s very well known in Minnesota, but not so much in California where I live. Each year he gives more than 100 invited presentations for private and public events, mostly through the activities of the Will Steger Foundation. I’m hoping to get him included in the lecture series I go to in Los Angeles.

 

The Causes for Climate Change and the Post-Truth Era

“Post-Truth” Is the Word of the Year according to the Oxford English Dictionary, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion that appeals to emotion and personal belief.” It is easier to discard an objective fact if it is something one cannot see, touch or feel. Most people don’t notice that ocean levels have been increasing by three millimeters a year. Also, some can be convinced by other plausible causes for global warming, such as sunspots or non-man-made climate changes that occurred eons ago.

So what can be done about people who disagree with 97 percent of the world’s scientists who believe that global warming is secondary to human factors or who think that the last three years of record heat is merely an anomaly? One way is to sidestep the global warming issue and focus on something that can be seen and felt—air pollution. Most everyone will agree that air pollution is man-made. They also likely would agree that air pollution is detrimental to one’s health, particularly respiratory diseases. And if you can get people working to improve air pollution, they will also be improving a factor that contributes to global warming. Encouraging the use of electric cars, for example, decreases carbon dioxide emissions.

Another reason to focus on air pollution is we know something can be done about it to significantly remedy the problem in a relatively short period of time. Modified car engines and strict emission standards do make a difference. The first time I came to Los Angeles was in 1968 when the air quality was particularly bad. It was so bad that I seriously considered not taking a residency at UCLA in 1972. Before I accepted the position offered at UCLA, I called the Air Pollution Control Board and asked them about air pollution in Westwood where UCLA is located. They told me that of the permanent monitoring stations, the one in Westwood routinely measured the lowest levels of air pollution. I accepted the residency and have been happy living in Southern California ever since.

Even though there are so many more cars and people in LA now, and smog in the LA basin is inevitable, the air quality is actually much better than when I first moved here. In fact, it is 90 percent better than it was in 1960 and far better than in cities like Beijing that don’t have nearly as many cars as Los Angeles. In fact there are seventy-eight cities in China that have worse pollution than Los Angeles. It’s so bad in China that people actually buy cans of fresh mountain air just to get a few whiffs of non-polluted air. China is now actively interested in cleaning up their foul air, as evidenced by such things as their signing the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Trump has threatened to undermine this international agreement that the US also signed. Let’s hope it is an idle threat.

Larsen, Shackleton and Global Warming

The Larsen C Ice Shelf has been in the news lately because a section of it larger than Rhode Island is on the verge of breaking off. This ice shelf is the fourth largest in Antarctica. The rapid acceleration of the 300 meter deep fissure in this ice shelf is undoubtedly related to global warming. Temperatures are rising faster in Antarctica than any other place on the globe. The main concern with the loss of an ice shelf is that it acts as a dam holding back land ice and it is the melting of the land ice that will have the most dramatic effect on sea levels.

The ice shelf is named after Carl Anton Larsen who was a Norwegian ship captain that discovered the ice shelf which bears his name in 1893. He was the first person to ski in Antarctica and the first to discover fossils there indicating that Antarctica was once part of a large warmer continent.

Larsen and Shackleton had parallel and intersecting lives. Like Shackleton, Larsen's ship, the Antarctic, was crushed in the Weddell Sea ice pack in 1903, forcing him and his crew to row lifeboats to Paulet Island where he and his crew survived over the winter by eating seals and penguins before being rescued by an Argentinian ship.

Larsen founded Grytviken, the whaling station on South Georgia Island, where Shackleton ended up after his heroic 800 mile journey from Elephant Island by lifeboat and foot. Shackleton and his men most likely would have died if they had not been able to reach this nearest outpost of civilization. Shackleton and the whalers made several attempts to sail to Elephant Island to rescue the bulk of his crew, but kept having to turn back because of storms and the impenetrable icepack. Three months later they finally succeeded.

Larsen championed the building of a Norwegian Lutheran Church in 1913 that remains in use to this day. It is the same church where the funeral services were held for Shackleton when he died in 1922. Shackleton was buried on South Georgia Island. Larsen died two years later while whaling in the Ross Sea.

A Voyage For Madmen

In 2002 Peter Nichols published the book entitled “A Voyage For Madmen” about the Golden Globe Race in 1968. It was the first round-the-world, single-handed, nonstop sailboat race and the forerunner of today’s Vendee Globe. Of the nine entrants in the Golden Globe, only one finished— the British sailor Robin Knox-Johnson— who became the first person to sail around the world nonstop. It took him 312 days whereas the leader of the Vendee Globe today, the Frenchman Armel Le Cleach, is expected to complete his circuit of the globe on January 19, 2017 a mere seventy-five days after the race began.

My interest in the Vendee Globe stems primarily from the time I spent in the Southern Ocean when I was a doctor aboard a Coast Guard icebreaker, the USCGG Glacier. After sailing between South America and Antarctica six times, I could not imagine racing in these same waters in any kind of sailboat, much less the 60 foot yachts now used in theVendee Globe, particularly after the 300 foot long Glacier almost capsized in waves as tall as an eight story building while we were in the Southern Ocean.

Although the yachts racing in the Vendee Globe have the advantage of satellite imaging and sophisticated GPS navigation that we did not have aboard the Glacier in 1969, we at least had a thick   steel hull design for breaking sea ice instead of a fragile carbon hull, as well as someone constantly at the helm to watch out for icebergs. Solo sailors in a nonstop spend a good deal of time in the Southern Ocean sailing north of the Antarctic Exclusion Zone (AEZ) where, according to sophisticated satellite tracking techniques, Antarctic icebergs could be present. However, these sailors sometimes have to come close to the AEZ in order to avoid storms or to catch the best winds. If they cross into the AEZ they are severely penalized, disqualified, or in the worst case actually hit an iceberg.

Vendee Globe sailors need to rely extensively on autopilot systems since they obviously cannot spend all their time at the helm. Five of the twenty-nine initial entrance in the 2016/17 Vendee Globe were knocked out of the race after striking and Unidentified Floating Object (UFO). Three of those events occurred while sailors were in the Southern Ocean and could have been caused by “growlers” (car-sized pieces of an iceberg) that could have escaped detection by modern tracking techniques, although one of these collisions probably was with a container that fell off of a container cargo ship. The skipper of this latter ship had to sail 220 miles in stormy seas and was on the verge of sinking before he was rescued.

Another skipper was not so lucky. The UFO collision he experienced tore off part of his keel and hull. By the time a cargo ship was able to rescue him, the water was over his floorboards and his yacht could not be saved.

Three Vendee Globe sailors had to abandon the race after losing their masts during violent Southern Ocean storms, but all of them were able to safely make it to ports with makeshift sails or with the assistance of another vessel.

Given the conditions some of the sailors experienced between the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn it is surprising that even more sailors have not been knocked out of the race. For example, New Zealander Conrad Coleman’s boat Foresight Natural Energy was on its side for several hours in 60 knot winds and according to him “being dragged sideways across the tops of the foaming crests with the keel pointing skywards” before regaining control of his yacht. And his potential disaster occurred when he was near Point Nemo—a place that marks the midpoint between New Zealand and Chile and the Pitcairn Islands and Antarctica—the most isolated spot on the planet.

Eleven of the twenty-nine sailors who began the Vendee Globe have had to drop out. And four sailors have yet to round Cape Horn and head up the Atlantic for the last portion of the race. How many more will be forced to abandon the race remains to be seen.

Although it has been tough for the sailors in this Vendee Globe race, it was much tougher for those in the 1996/1997 race. Winds in excess of 80 knots hit the race leaders while they were in the Southern Ocean. One sailor capsized, lost his mast and remained on his upturned hull for thirty-six hours before he was rescued by a fellow competitor. Two others capsized and had to wait four days before they were rescued by another ship.

The sailor in second place at the time of thestorm, Canadian skipper Gerry Roufs aboard Groupe LG 2,  told the Race Directors, “The waves are not mere waves they are the Alps.“

I had not seen Roufs’ quote until shortly before I wrote this blog, but it made me shudder because his words so closely mirrored my experiences aboard the Glacier. In my book about my experiences aboard the Glacier that I essentially finished several months ago I wrote about how the U.S. Navy described waves taller than 40 feet as being ‘Mountainous’. But I felt that term was more akin to smaller mountain ranges like the Berkshire Mountains, whereas the kind of waves that we faced in our final crossing of Drake Passage were “more like the Alps.”

Rouf reported that his boat capsized three times. On January 7, 1997 his radio beacon stopped emitting. The upturned hull of his boat was spotted six months later. The wreckage of his boat was formally identified on August 29, 1998 off the coast of Chile.

USAA and Total Vehicle Loss Insurance

One of the perks of being assigned to the Coast Guard in 1969, besides my adventuresome deployment to Antarctica, was qualifying for USAA insurance. At that time, and for many years thereafter, I thought USAA was the best of the best. Sadly, that no longer seems to be the case. The average guy in a military service does not make that much money which makes them particularly vulnerable when their car is totaled and they need to rely on USAA to give them the money they need for a replacement vehicle. The following saga will give readers an idea of what they can expect from USAA and, if they can afford to persevere, how they might eventually prevail.

On September 28, 2016 I was lucky to walk away from a near head-on collision when a truck suddenly turned left in front of me as I was cruising through a major intersection. I knew I would not be held liable for the accident because I had the right-of-way. When I spoke with USAA they told me that my thousand dollars deductible would be waived because the accident was not my fault. My car was towed to a local body shop that turned out to be one preferred by USAA.

Several days later I was informed by USAA that my car was considered a total loss. This left me with two options. I could have USAA pay to repair the car, but then the car would have a “salvage title,” meaning the resale value of the car would be substantially less, or I could buy new car. It didn’t strike me as being much of a choice. I started shopping for a replacement vehicle.

My USAA insurance policy declared that I was covered for the “Actual Cash Value” (ACV) of my vehicle. Since the basic idea behind insurance is to “make one whole,” I assumed actual cash value meant I would receive the actual cash I needed from USAA to buy a vehicle comparable to the one I lost. USAA quickly made it clear to me that they interpreted “Actual Cash Value” as meaning something quite different— something much closer to the wholesale value of the vehicle. They made it very clear that they would not reimburse me for the typical retail price of a car sold by a dealer. Since car dealers do not sell their vehicles for wholesale prices, I knew I was in trouble. I argued, “If I had theft insurance with you and someone stole my TV, would you expect me to go to a store and demand that they sell me their TV at a wholesale price?” They essentially told me, “It’s not the same thing.”

After doing some research I found that on average the dealer price for an exact replacement of my vehicle— a 2014 Infiniti Q 50— was about $29,000. I couldn’t find any vehicles like mine for sale by private sellers.

On October 11, 2016, I received a letter from USAA stating that they had determined that the actual cash value of my vehicle was $24,632 plus a California sales tax of $2,216.88. Two days later they sent me another email confirming that figure, along with the documentation supporting their conclusion, from and evaluating agency they use called CCC1. CCC1 quoted the sales information on twelve supposedly comparable vehicles. The problem was that only one of the twelve vehicles had the upgrades my car had. It was not an ‘apples to apples’ comparison.  Also, the data they provided was from the Department of Motor Vehicles database, which I could not access. Consequently, I had no way of knowing the condition of the cars sold. For all I knew, half of them could have been salvage vehicles. In any case, the average sold price, not listing price, of the vehicles described was $26,729 (11 of the 12 vehicles had been sold.) So how did they come up with an evaluation of $24,632? I could accept the notion that used cars are generally worth less than a dealer’s listing price, but the price for which they actually sold was I thought a good indication of their true value. CCC1 somehow concluded that the true value of these sold the vehicle was significantly less. There average downward “adjustment” for these sold vehicles was $1,998, which was the main figure they used for downgrading the value of my vehicle. I thought, I guess they think all of the buyers were so stupid as to overpay by almost $2000.

I did some research on CCC1. They claim they can save insurance companies money by using their proprietary database. As far as I could tell, USAA was going to exclusively rely on the valuation data supplied by CCC1. USAA evidently was one of CCC1’s clients. I thought, Who would CCC1 rather keep happy, me or USAA? Call me a skeptic, but I was beginning to think that the system was rigged against me.

The other problem I had with CCC1’s evaluation of my car is that they described the condition of my car as being “average” in the six different categories they use— Mechanical, Tires, Paint, Body, Glass, and Interior. I spoke with USAA and told them that the condition of my one-owner, dealer-maintained car was somewhere between very good and excellent in all categories and should be reassessed accordingly. USAA told me that all cars in California are evaluated on three levels: “Below Average, Average and Exceptional.” They described “Exceptional” as essentially being showroom ready. They indicated that the condition of my car had been determined by a guy at the body shop. A USAA employee had not personally examined my vehicle.

I later spoke to the guy at the body shop who had evaluated my vehicle. He suggested that he had evaluated my car based on guidelines provided by USAA. He admitted that based on these guidelines maybe one percent of the cars he evaluated were “exceptional.” I began to think that this body shop that USAA had recommended might have a bias that did not favor me. In any case, categorizing my vehicle as “average,” rather than somewhere between average and exceptional, clearly favored the insurance company. Most companies, such as Kelly Blue Book and Edmonds allow for ratings between average and excellent.

When I later spoke with USAA, they suggested that this three-level criteria was approved by the State of California. I contacted the insurance division of the state of California and asked them if it was a matter of official policy that cars are evaluated per these three “low average, average, exceptional” criteria. They denied anything of the sort. The state official I spoke to said, “Ask them (USAA) what’s the insurance code that they are talking about.” I did and USAA could not provide me with either insurance code information or written proof that the State of California explicitly approves their three-level rating system.  I thought, Does USAA actually think that there rating system is fair?

One of the agents at USAA told me I could do research on my own to find comparable values for my car. If my data showed that CCC1’s values were unfairly low, they suggested that they then would make adjustments. Over the next month, I provided them with several sets of comparable values that they completely ignored. For example, I quoted them three comparable vehicles in my area with similar mileage selling for an average price of $30,844.

I thought I came to the perfect solution when I went to USAA’s own car buying service and quoted them only the good buys per their TrueCar Market Price Analysis. I later spoke with one of their agents and asked him why the value of my car could not be upgraded.  After all a “great price” for a vehicle comparable to mine per their TrueCar system was more than $29,000. The agent told me they could not accept values from their own car buying service because it was not available to everyone, yet he said he would not accept values from any other car valuation service, such as Kelly Blue Book or Edmonds, because those publicly-available services included a certain degree of dealer profit that USAA would not accept. I asked him if there was some other service he could recommend that I could use for an independent evaluation. He could not give me one. I thought, Like it or lump it, I’m going to be stuck with CCC1’s evaluation.

I later learned that if I wasn’t happy with the price USAA was offering, I could hire a certified independent evaluator to do market research and determine the comparable value of my car. I assumed I would have to pay for this person. But then I thought, It won’t matter what an independent evaluator determines if USAA won’t allow for a dealers reasonable profit.

On October 18, 2016 USAA upped their offer to $24,782 plus taxes. On October 19, they sent me a threatening letter stating that I had to approve their moving my car to a storage facility or “any storage charges incurred after October 24, 2016 will be your responsibility.” About the same time an agent called me and told me that I was going to have to pay the $1000 deductible because they had not yet received the Highway Patrol report showing that the other driver was at fault. Rather than wait for the report, they were reneging on their promise to not charge me the $1000 deductible. I was struck with how quickly they responded on issues that would cost me additional money versus how slowly or unresponsive they were to the numerous emails I was sending them. Meanwhile, I had to continue paying auto insurance for my stored vehicle. When the Highway Patrol report finally arrived, I was told I would not have to pay the $1000 deductible.

I later spoke with another agent who told me that I should not have been sent the threatening letter about storage fees because the body shop I was using was one where USAA could store cars indefinitely at no additional cost. I thought, It seems like they have a cozy relationship with this body shop.

On November 8, 2016 I finally received an ‘apples to apples’ valuation of my vehicle from CCC1 that included information on a number of other comparable vehicles. USAA offered $25,482 plus taxes. I continued to complain that this was not a fair price.

When I closely looked at the new list of comparables from CCC1, I noticed that there was one 2014 Infiniti Q50 that had similar features to mine, but with significantly less mileage. Surprisingly, CCC1 downgraded the value of this vehicle compared to mine when it should have been upgraded. Obviously, the data provided by CCC1 is not entirely accurate.

I had previously insisted that CCC1 provide me with data on cars that I could actually buy versus cars that had already been sold. I decided to try and buy the previously-mentioned vehicle with less mileage. To make a long story short, after an intense, hard-nosed negotiation with the dealer, I struck a great deal and bought the vehicle for $27,000. I insured the car with USAA before I drove it off the lot.

So now I had a decent car to drive and still owned my totaled car that was taking up space on the body shop’s lot. USAA could not use my car for parts or anything else until I gave them title to my car. I was not about to give USAA title to my car until they paid me the ‘actual cash’ I had paid for my replacement vehicle, particularly since I knew that I had bought a car for about $2,000 below market value.

I subsequently spoke with another USAA agent. By then it was apparent to them that I was not going to simply accept their last offer and stop pestering them. This agent arbitrarily, as far as I could tell, upgraded one aspect of my car’s value to the “exceptional” level. He bumped up the value of my car to $26,302 plus taxes. I thought, A low-level agent can make adjustments within CCC1’s parameters. Maybe a supervisor can do better.

On November 18, 2016, I was finally able to speak to a supervisor, Christopher Oppen. He basically said that USAA was complying with all state guidelines and was doing nothing wrong whatsoever. After a long discussion, he agreed to upwardly adjust my valuation by $698, ostensibly because I’d been a USAA member for forty-seven years. I assumed he had chosen that exact amount because he by then knew that I had already bought a car for $27,000. I agreed to accept that amount. It was still sixty-three dollars short of the ‘actual cash’ I had to pay (because of taxes), but I was not going to quibble.

Although I was finally satisfied with the results I had achieved, I remained unsatisfied with the intense effort— countless emails and phone conversations, etc.—it had taken me to get a fair settlement. I didn’t think the average guy expending a reasonable amount of effort would fare as well in a system that seemed to be decidedly tilt in USAA’s favor. I thought, The people who have served this country deserve better.

With the thought of clarifying USAA’s standard policy, I asked Oppen to tell me in writing what USAA really means by “Actual Cash Value.” On November 21 he sent me an email saying “USAA provides Actual Cash Value (ACV) which is what your car is worth minus profit the dealer turns for selling the vehicle above market value.” And the market value is what CCC1 determines. I called him back and asked if USAA could officially amend their policy using the definition he gave me. He said he would pass on this recommendation to upper-level management. When I last spoke to him on December 21, 2016 he stated that USAA would not be making any of the changes he had suggested. I was not surprised.

As far as I understand the law, insurance companies have a duty to make their policies crystal clear in terms of what they cover and what they do not. In my opinion, USAA’s definition of “Actual Cash Value” is misleading. Even if they amended their policy per the definition given by Mr. Oppen, it wouldn’t change how USAA operates, but it would give a clearer signal to people who buy their policy that they’re going to face a complex situation. If Oppen’s modified definition had been incorporated, I had hoped that it would lead to policyholders at least realizing that they cannot simply replace their totaled car by going to a car dealer, paying retail, and having USAA reimburse them for that amount.

A key portion of the definition given by Oppen deals with the “market value” of a vehicle. The legal definition of “market value” is the highest mutually agreed-upon price between the buyer and seller in a normal, non-urgent situation. I seriously doubt that the values provided by CCC1 are based on the highest prices in mutually agreed-upon sales between a buyer and car dealer.

In spite of the problems I’ve had with USAA, I still think there a better than average insurance company. But I no longer view them as being the best. In my experience, dealing with an insurance carrier about almost anything is difficult.  State Farm now has a higher approval rating in social media when it comes to automobile insurance, but they are only a half star better. Anyone who thinks that dealing with an insurance company is going to be simple, straightforward and satisfying is, in my opinion, naïve. But if you know how insurance companies operate, your chances of succeeding with them are much better. The bottom line is you will probably have to negotiate long and hard with them before you can get a fair settlement. Unfortunately, many people for many reasons are forced to settle for less.

In most cases, replacing a totaled vehicle involves dealing with a car dealership. Car dealers are professional negotiators. Unless someone is a hard-nosed and very knowledgeable negotiator, the car dealers are going to strike a better deal. One of things USAA could do to help their policyholders would be to assist car buyers in the negotiating process. It would save them money and make their policyholders happier.

In these days of social media, USAA is apt to lose market share if they do not upgrade their operations. The word about what they are doing eventually gets around. Apparently what USAA does in terms of under valuing a replacement vehicle is fairly common in the insurance industry, so much so that Liberty Mutual is now advertising that they guarantee to replace a totaled vehicle with a brand-new vehicle. Oppen told me that this is true, but it applies only to vehicles with less than 15,000 miles and involves paying an insurance premium. I told him that at least their parameters are clear.

The next time I buy a new car, I probably will pay the premium and buy a policy from Liberty Mutual. I like clarity. After my car is beyond 15,000 miles, I would switch to another insurance company— which ever one most highly rated at the time that probably would not be Liberty Mutual. A former employee of that company called them “Slippery Mutual.” In spite of its flaws, I think USAA is a better company. If they make a few changes, they might once again be the best.

In summary, I would advise the following for best settlement results:

1. If USAA claims they are following a state directive, check with your state’s Department of Insurance.

2. Closely look at CCC1’s data. It may not be accurate. Insist that they include cars you can actually buy, or reflect all the features your car has.

3. Do your own market research in order to determine a fair settlement value.

4. Assume you will be sending multiple emails and having multiple settlement discussions with different agents.

 5. Be patient. It may take a month or more before USAA gives you a more acceptable settlement offer.

6. Know that low-level agents can make some concessions, but larger ones can only be made by supervisors.

7. Don’t give USAA title to your totaled car until you have reached a satisfactory settlement.

8. If you’re not a skilled negotiator and you’re going to be buy your replacement vehicle from a    dealer, go with someone who is, or at least someone who is level-headed and objective. And by all means do good market research before you go to the dealer so you know the realistic value of the car you plan to purchase. If necessary, insist on using a computer at the dealer to do additional research, particularly if you end up buying a car different than the one you had   originally planed.

I wish you good luck.

 

The Deep South is no Picnic.

I like the words of Vendée Globe sailor Alan Roura aboard La Fabrique and his realistic description of typical sailing in the Southern Ocean:

“The Deep South is no picnic. I have never been so frightened, taking routes or diversions to round the big lows, enduring front after front with crossed seas and breaking waves, some of which are 8 to 10m high. Going from 20 to 40 knots of breeze without having the time to realize that the boat has already broached. The South has its secrets and calls for you to sail in a way that you need to learn. Above all it forces you to never think you’re more powerful than the ocean.”

 

Vendee Globe- The Everest of Sailing

Some of my blog posts are more urgent than others and this is one of them. The Vendee Globe is undoubtedly the hardest and most demanding sailing race in the world. It is a single-handed, non-stop race around the world in 60 foot sailboats. The race is now in its thirty-ninth day and this posting is urgent because the leaders are soon approaching Drake Passage – a passage that I crossed six times when I was a doctor aboard the USCGC Glacier. I know the kinds of conditions these built-for-speed sailboats could end up facing and pray they are not confronted with anything like the mountainous seas we faced aboard the Glacier during our last crossing.

The Vendee Globe race was founded by Phillipe Jeantot in 1989. Since 1992, it has taken place every four years. The race is open to 60 foot monohull yachts conforming to the Open 60 criteria. The race begins in Les Sables d’ Olonne, France, then down the Atlantic and around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Australia’s Cape Leeuwin, and South America’s notorious Cape Horn before heading back up the Atlantic to the French port where they began. Competitors in this race are not allowed to receive any outside assistance, nor are they allowed to draw alongside a dock, quay or another vessel, but they may stop at anchor. Many of the sailors choose to withdraw from the race.

In the 1996-97 race one of the sailors, Gerry Roufs from Canada was lost at sea. His boat was found five months later off the coast of Chile. The sailors are often far from any normal emergency response, particularly during the long treacherous stretch of the race in the Southern Ocean, although two capsized boats were rescued by Australian rescue teams in the 1996-97 race. A third capsized boat in this same race was rescued by one of the participants, Raphael Dinelli, who was later awarded France’s Legion d’honneur.

During the 2000-2001 race 24 -year-old Ellen MacArthur almost won the race, but ended up second after striking a semi-submerged container and being delayed in order to make repairs. Yet she arrived to great fanfare as result of being “the youngest ever competitor to finish, the fastest woman around the planet – and only second solo sailor to get around the globe and less than 100 days.”

Sebastien Josse finished fifth in the 2004-05 race in spite of hitting an iceberg—a constant threat while sailing in the Southern Ocean. The 2008-09 race was won by Michel Desjoyeaux, who set a new record of 84d 3h 9’ 8”. This record was eclipsed in the 2012-13 race by François Gabart, who completed the circumnavigation in 78d 2h 16’ 40”.

The race is fascinating to follow on the Vendee Globe website where you can see video footage of segments of the race while it is happening. Some of the sailboats exceed speeds of 25 knots and can sailmore than 500 miles during a 24-hour period. Videos taken off the stern of the boats give one a very good sense of the speeds they can attain.

I’m looking forward to more excitement and incredible feats during the remaining portion of the 2016-17 race.

Blue Iguanas and Stem Cells

Blue Iguanas are an endangered species native to Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean. I just returned from there after having some bone marrow removed from the posterior crest of my pelvis. The stem cells that my body produces, specifically Mesenchymal Stem Cells, will be separated out from my bone marrow and cultured by Regenexx—a company specializing in Regenerative Medicine. The harvested stem cells will multiply in a culture medium 100 fold or more. In six weeks I will return there to have the stem cells injected into my bone-on-bone arthritic knee. If all goes well, the injected stem cells will grow into cartilage that will lubricate and cushion my knee joint and save me from having artificial knee surgery.

There is no guarantee this procedure will work. According to 2015 data contained in Regenexx’s Registry, they treated 1,825 patients with knee arthritis with their proprietary, three-step Regenexx-C stem cell procedure. The average age of their patients was fifty-seven years old. Most were male and only slightly overweight. Their data showed that an average of forty-six percent had significant (50 percent or better) improvement within three months. An average of fifty-five percent was similarly improved after one year. They’re not promising miracles and I’m not expecting any, but for me the rewards exceed the risks (primarily a healthy chunk of change.) Nothing beats naturally-formed cartilage—it’s tough and slipperier than ice on ice.

So why does one have to go all the way to the Cayman Islands to get this kind of treatment? Good question. If I was younger and pumping out a lot of stem cells, I could receive one of their proprietary treatments in the US from a handful of physicians specially trained in their technique. However, I’m seventy-three years old. My body is chewing up stem cells far faster than I can produce them and the success rate of their procedure is directly proportional to the number of stem cells injected into an ailing joint. A few thousand cells probably wouldn’t help me much. My knee is too damaged. Thus, I need to harvest and grow my stem cells. And the closest place to legally grow them is in the Cayman Islands.

It turns out the Federal Drug Administration has determined that growing one’s own stem cells is in effect creating a new drug. It takes about 500 million dollars and ten years to create a new drug approved by the FDA. Regenexx tried to get FDA approval to culture stem cells in the US but failed. They then decided to move their cell-culturing facilities to the Caribbean. I’d love to have lots of double-blind studies and FDA approval for a stem cell treatment, but I’ll settle for the fact that Regenexx closely tracks their results in an ongoing registry.

I heard that one of the Manning brothers—I assume it was Peyton—had a stem cell treatment in Europe that allowed him to continue playing football. If the story is true, and a guy with three neck surgeries was able to return to football and win a Super Bowl, then I would be mightily impressed. But not impressed enough to try an expensive treatment myself. I needed to do much more research and investigation into stem cell treatments before making a decision on a mere anecdote. I’d recommend you do your own research and make decisions based on consultation with your own physician. These treatments are not covered by insurance. Hopefully, someday they will.

There are a number of stem cell clinics in the US, but they’re less experienced then Regenexx and none do stem cell cultures that I know of. And many are outright scams. These disreputable clinics may inject you with stem cells, but they won’t tell you the stem cells are from sharks or sheep. Or maybe even from blue iguanas.

Shackleton's Voyage: Part One

Sir Earnest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was crushed and sank in the Weddell Sea icepack on November 21, 1915. He and his twenty-seven man crew subsequently lived on the icepack that continued to drift in a northerly direction somewhat parallel to the eastern edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. When the icepack finally melted beneath them, they took to their three longboats. They rowed continuously for several days in these open boats before finally reaching Elephant Island off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Shackleton spent less than two weeks on the island. Midwinter was approaching. There was no time to waste.

     On April 24, 1916, Shackleton and five of his crew sailed for South Georgia Island, 650 nautical miles (1,050 kilometers) away. There was a whaling station on this island, which Shackleton and his crew knew about because they had stopped there on their way to Antarctica. It was the closest outpost of civilization. And a razor-thin hope for salvation.

     Elephant Island was a remote island, far away from any shipping lanes. No backup ship would be coming to rescue them and they had no radio to inform the world about their plight. The only ship available was the ship they lost. Even if there had been a plan for a rescue ship to come searching for them, they would have been almost impossible to find. All any potential rescuer would have known was that they probably were somewhere within the million square miles of the Weddell Sea.

     The craft that was going to undertake this desperate voyage to South Georgia Island was the James Caird, one of the longboats converted into a makeshift small sailboat by the ship’s resourceful carpenter, Harry McNish. He reportedly did carpentry work using only ‘eyeball’ measurements. Shackleton chose five men to join him: Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, served as navigator, with McNish, the Bosun, John Vincent, and two seamen, Thomas Crean and Tim McCarthy. The remaining twenty-one crewmembers remained on the island—with little hope that Shackleton and his small crew would ever survive.

     The worst danger the James Caird faced on this voyage was colliding with a large piece of berg ice. Such an event would have likely sunk them. Consequently, Shackleton immediately turned north and tried to get as far away from the icepack as he could, before turning east towards South Georgia Island. Luck was with them. They never hit any significant ice. But then they had to deal with the terror of Drake Passage in a twenty-two foot, double-ended boat. (To be continued in subsequent blog postings.)

Bad News, Good News and Climate Change

The election of Donald Trump—who has called human-caused climate change a “total hoax”—was bad news for those of us concerned about the effects of global warming. The good news is that he cannot legally do anything to stop the 190 countries who have vowed to reduce carbon dioxide pollution, nor can he unilaterally erase the US commitment to the Paris agreement. But he can slow or weaken the enforcement of President Obama’s climate rules. Maybe his views will change when rising sea levels continue to threaten his coastal properties, such as “Trump Hollywood” on the vulnerable coast of Florida. Even if that area is not flooded in the near future, Trump may soon find that insurance companies will no longer insure his threatened coastal properties, effectively making those properties worthless. Such a blow to his pocketbook is bound to get his attention.

One of the reasons why Trump was elected, in spite of his obvious characterological flaws, was because people generally make decisions based on their emotions more than logical reasoning. Studies have shown that it is primarily the emotional part of the brain that lights up (as seen in PET scans) when people make political decisions, regardless of their political persuasion. The data shows that people fearful of immigrants and terrorism in US strongly favored Trump, kind of a “Brexit” mentality.

For a similar reason, I think people can’t accept the data amassed showing that global warming is not a hoax. From an emotional perspective, it is more palatable to deny it. But that denial will probably fade as more concrete events directly impact people, like flooding in Florida or the historic drought in California. Who knows…maybe even Trump believes in global warming, but declared otherwise to win votes from the people most likely to vote for him. What politicians say and what they truly believe are often at odds.

What was bad news for me about Trump’s election was more than offset by the news I received two days later. I just learned we can look forward to our second grandchild. That’s a global warming of my heart.

 

 

International Cooperation in Antarctica

In spite of the ugly politics in the US and the rest of the world, there is upbeat news regarding Antarctica. For the past year a number of nations have tried to create a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Antarctica. The US, EU, China and twenty-one other countries were in agreement. Russia was the only holdout, but they finally agreed to join the other nations to create the worlds largest Marine Protected Area— 600,000 square miles—in the Ross Sea of Antarctica. Nothing can be taken from this area including marine life and minerals, except for scientific purposes, for the next thirty-five years. This means among other things that “Chilean Sea Bass”, the brand name for Patagonian Toothfish predominantly found in Antarctica, may still be enjoyed in our restaurants for some time.

Russia’s Special Representative for Ecology, Sergei Ivanov said “Russia has a proud history of exploration and science and Antarctica. In this time of political turbulence in so many parts of the world, we are pleased to be part of this collaborative international effort to safeguard the Ross Sea.”

When I was in Antarctica aboard the USCGC Glacier in 1970, I had the honor of visiting a Russian station along with a small group of our officers. We joined a dozen Russians for lunch that consisted mostly of pickled food washed down with the best vodka I’ve ever had. In the midst of the Cold War, we got drunk together, raised both the American and Russian flags high above their station, and then gave them a tour of our ship. That experience left me with the feeling that there could be real cooperation between our countries. The recent agreement to create a huge marine reserve in Antarctica underscores that such cooperation can and does happen.

Antarctica is the only continent that has never experienced a war. The Antarctic Treaty has been a model for international cooperation since 1959.

The Benefits of Awe Experiences

Preliminary studies by Jennifer Stellar at Berkeley indicate that of all the positive experiences, only awe predicts a significant reduction in cytokine levels. High levels of this chemical messenger are associated with excessive inflammation and increased vulnerability to disease. Other studies at Berkeley show that simply watching a short video of expansive natural images lead to better results in test of creativity and more persistence while attempting to perform difficult tasks. I recently saw a documentary film, “Antarctica: A Year on Ice”, by Anthony Powell. I think essentially everyone would be awestruck after seeing such a beautiful film.

A study by Arnie Gordon at Berkeley indicated that awe experiences are relatively common, occurring on average every third day. These experiences create a “stop-and-think” moment that makes us more receptive to new information and more aware of others. Awe sensations can be triggered by such things as appreciating the wonders of nature, art, music, acts of kindness or experiencing something vast that is not immediately understood.

In modern society we tend to spend too much time looking at our cell phones or generally being self-absorbed. It’s important that we actively seek out every day awe experiences. It’s not that hard. For example, I have found that if I have a camera in my hand and I’m looking for something nice to photograph, I’m much more apt to see beauty in simple things like patterns, textures, or colors. Watching children experience the world is another frequent source of awe.

I recently heard about something my granddaughter did. I didn’t actually see what Emily did, but I could picture it in my mind. I was a bit concerned about Emily when she was younger because she seemed to be inordinately afraid of dogs, but that seems to have changed now that she is two years old. A friend of my daughter and son-in-law came to visit them and brought along a six-month-old black Labrador. Emily delighted in playing with the dog and chasing after him. She finally tired the dog out to the point where the dog needed to take a nap. She was told the dog needed to go “nighty night.” When the dog laid down to sleep, Emily got her blanket to cover the dog… along with one of her favorite stuffed animals. That act of kindness and altruism was certainly an awe moment for me.

The importance of Awe!

I was going to entitle this entire blog site “Awesome Antarctica” because it relates to how I feel about many of my Antarctic experiences and because it ties into the book I have just written. But then I realized my blog was going to cover a wide variety of topics unrelated to Antarctica. Also, the word “awesome” is so overused these days that it has lost much of its power. However, the feeling of awe is more important than most people realize. In fact, it has become the topic of a number of psychological studies.

Scientists think that one of the reasons why we as humans experience the feeling of awe is because such a transcendent experience helps us think more about beauty, nature and humanity. Studies have shown that such feelings help us think more of others and less about ourselves. In an evolutionary sense, it has helped us realize that we are part of something larger, part of a group. And that has aided in our survival as we began to live in social collectives.

Studies also show that the experience of awe helps to stimulate feelings of wonder and curiosity, which undoubtedly has led to numerous important discoveries to advance civilization.

I’ve not seen any studies about when feelings of awe begin, but I think they begin early in life. When my lovely granddaughter, Emily, was only fifteen months old, she ended up having to watch a home video. I assumed she would find it thoroughly boring. I took the video when my wife and I traveled to France along with a small group of adults. I didn’t think Emily would have any interest in such things as cathedrals, medieval towns or World War II battle sites. I guessed the only reason why she didn’t start squirming right away was because she was comfortable resting in grandma’s arms while she quietly sucked on her bottle and passively watched the video. Twenty-five minutes later the video showed a scene of Monet’s Garden— a classical shot of an arched bridge over a reflective pond filled with lily pads and surrounded by flowering trees. Emily suddenly sat upright, dropped her bottle and said “Wow.” I didn’t even know that word was part of her limited vocabulary. There was no doubt in my mind that she was awestruck by the beauty of the scene. And I was similarly awed by her reaction, not only because it was so unexpected and so welcome, but also because I realized we both shared the same sense of beauty. In a sense, the same shared humanity.

 

Paris Climate Agreement signed and sealed!

Twenty-eight more nations signed the Paris Climate Agreement on October 5th, 2016, giving the agreement enough to cross the threshold needed. Seventy-three countries accounting for 56.87% of the worlds greenhouse emissions - including the US and China - are now formally parties to the treaty. Obama described the news as a "turning point for our planet". The international agreement passed in record time, partly out of fears of what Trump might do if he was elected. U.N, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said “What once seemed unthinkable is now unstoppable.” The accord goes into effect one day before the US presidential election. 

Although the accord is not legally binding, countries are required to report on their emissions and their progress towards meeting the goal of limiting rising global temperatures to much less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit - and avoid what geoscience professor Michael Oppenheimer described as “falling over a very steep cliff.” A good deal of hard work remains for the nations of the world to achieve the goals that have been set.

 

Polar Regions, Vikings and Tomatoes

So what’s the relationship between the three things in the title you may ask? Since I’m three quarters Norwegian by heritage and I’ve always loved stories about exploring, it’s not surprising that I developed an interest in the vast explorations during the heyday of the Vikings. Their explorations covered an area including North America, Greenland, Europe, the Mediterranean and Russia. And they or their direct descendants not only settled many of these areas, but they also help set up major trading economies and helped establish stable governments, particularly in Russia, Iceland, and Sicily. And today Viking descendants are helping us in other ways.

The time I spent in Antarctica aboard the Glacier significantly increased my interest in polar regions, which led to my reading more about important Norwegian explorers like Nansen and Amundsen. The direct and indirect influence Norwegians have had on both the Arctic and the Antarctic is quite impressive.

I’ve always liked tomatoes, but modern day tomatoes don’t taste as good as the kinds I had more than sixty years ago when I was a little kid in Minnesota. It turns out that those good tasting tomatoes were less uniform, uglier and harder to transport. Round red tomatoes were not only easier to ship, but they also were more aesthetically pleasing and sold better. It wasn’t long before that was the only kind of tomato readily available. More recently, heirloom tomatoes are making a comeback, thanks to those who saved the seeds of the older varieties.

So what is it that links tomatoes, Vikings and polar regions? The connection has to do with plant seeds in general and all those plants that are dying out because of global warming, natural disasters, depleted soils, agribusiness practices, etc. It turns out there is a Global Seed Vault housed in a large tunnel and bunker in Svalbard, Norway— an island archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The seed bank there opened in 2008 and now stores seeds from close to 900,000 plant varieties. The state-of-the-art facility collecting the seeds is funded by the Government of Norway and is the result of a partnership between Norway, the Nordic Genetic Research Center and the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

We need to do all we can to preserve and maintain the planets dwindling biodiversity. Hats off to the government of Norway and their partners.