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.

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.


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.)

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.


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.

Rising Temperatures in Antartica

This past year was the hottest year on record and 2016 is on track to eclipse that record. Rising temperatures in Antarctica are going to have the most dramatic effect on sea levels. Global warming and how it relates to Antarctica will be one of the things I will be covering in this blog in more detail. But first a bit of my philosophy.

One of my philosophies is that there is almost invariably something good about the bad things that happen in one’s life. Sometimes the good aspect is not readily apparent, but becomes clear later on. Say, for example, you get hurt badly in an accident, but then while rehabilitating yourself from that injury, you learn a great deal about how to recover from subsequent injuries. And maybe you learn how to prevent a similar injury in the future. I could give many examples, but I think you get the idea.

So using this philosophical approach, I can actually find something good about Donald Trump’s candidacy. He does not believe in man-made global warming and if he became president he would nullify the historic global climate accord reached in Paris by sixty nations last December. I thought the climate accord was a done deal, but that is not so. Like many things, the devil is in the details. In order for the accord to become law, it must be approved by at least fifty-five nations and those giving their approval must be responsible for at least 55 percent of the climate altering missions. Even if all sixty nations formally approved the accord—as China and the US did recently—they still would only account for 48 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Normally it takes several years if not decades for an international agreement to become law, but thanks to Donald Trump it looks like the accord can become law this year. At a UN ceremony two days ago fourteen more countries said they would approve the accord this year. For many of these countries, the matter has become much more urgent based on their fears that Trump could become president.

"The Pursuit of Endurance: on the Shoulders of Shackleton"

I had the honor of meeting Luc Hardy on September 13, 2016 following a screening of his excellent new documentary film,” The Pursuit of an Endurance – On the Shoulders of Shackleton”. Mr. Hardy is an experienced polar explorer, venture capitalist and vice president of Green Cross. He produced the film and led the expedition that traced Shackleton’s heroic voyage between Elephant Island and South Georgia Island, as well as Shackleton’s treacherous crossing of this mountainous island. Although I knew about the crossing, I now have a much better idea of the degree of difficulty Shackleton faced when he crossed the island with two of his men 100 years ago. Shackleton traversed the then uncharted island, ridged with 10,000 foot peaks, with primitive equipment and little supplies in thirty-six hours. In contrast, Mr. Hardy’s expedition, with modern equipment, maps, and tremendous logistical support, needed several attempts before they were successful.

In the Q&A following the film, I was surprised to learn how many people had never even heard of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famous polar explorer who helped save his men from almost certain death after their ship, the Endurance was crushed in the Weddell Sea icepack. Their story of survival in the brutal conditions of Antarctica is beyond compare. Of course, I didn’t know much about Shackleton either, until 1970 when I was the ship’s doctor aboard a Coast Guard icebreaker, the Glacier, and we ended up hopelessly trapped in the same icepack, in essentially the same place as Shackleton, 100 miles from open water. Fortunately, our outcome was far less harrowing then Shackleton’s and it gave me a great story to tell.

The attached trailer of Luc Hardy’s film should give you a much better idea about Shackleton’s saga. I will be writing more about Shackleton in subsequent posts.