Hello again from the Aurora Australis after a whirlwind stop at Davis!

We arrived at Davis last Monday evening, and I got off the ship on Tuesday. I had a crazy four days ashore before we left again on Saturday. But first, back to where I left you at the end of my last email.

Before our final approach to Davis, the King Neptune ceremony was held for those of us who had never crossed 60°S before. This is meant to be a secret squirrel sort of affair. Those who have been through it are not meant to tell. What happens at 60°S stays at 60°S. But I’d heard about the shenanigans involved in this from people who had been through it before. They’d described things like kissing fish, having Vegemite spread on their faces or chocolate mousse through their hair. I’d been told to take old clothes I didn’t care about to wear. We were all given plenty of opportunities to opt out of the ‘ceremony’ if we didn’t want to do it, but I thought, “really, how bad can it be?”…

We were assembled for a briefing, when coming up the stairwell from the bowels of the ship could be heard moaning and growling, getting ever louder as the voyage leader hurried to blurt out what she had to say and get out of the way! Six of the crew emerged, decorated in blue body paint, with various wigs, Madonna-style cone bras, oyster and mussel shell necklaces and crowns, garbage bag singlets and chux-wipe grass skirts. King Neptune himself grasped his trident, resplendent in nothing but a garbage bag skirt and mop-head beard.

And then, the smell…

The buckets of brew they brought out looked like vomit and smelled even worse. The whole room was overcome. I have no idea what was in it, but I think I identified leftover porridge, rotting fish, fish sauce, cous cous and anchovies as I tried to extract it from my curls afterwards. One of the crew later told me they realised it was pretty rank after it had been fermenting in the engine room for a few days, so they made it nicer for us by adding vanilla. How lovely of them.

The first group’s names were called out. First was the easy part of hailing the King on bended knee, kissing his feet, kissing the salmon (fresh, at least that was one good thing) and being stamped with a cut-out potato. Then there was the ‘anointment’. Aaron might have been cursing his parents for giving him such an alphabetical-order-unfriendly name as the first in line to be covered in putrified gloop. He was dry retching. Plenty more struggled to hold it in too. I was somewhere in the middle of the pack, just when the floor was getting nice and slippery. I have since scrubbed and washed my shoes three times – they still stink. After it all, I was helping to scoop some of the floor stew back into buckets and clean up, next to Mike, who said, “bet you haven’t had to do this before Kristin?”. With anchovies dripping off my head, staring at the sea of beige covering the floor, I said, “well, actually, working in hospitality I did clean up a fair bit of spew in my time – though perhaps not of this quantity all at once”. To which Mike remarked that at least this wasn’t actual spew. I nodded. And then, right on cue, Zach (also with an alphabetical-order-unfriendly name: he got all the leftovers) vomited right at my feet.

So that was certainly not one of the highlights of my trip. Getting to Davis was though! The night we came in to the fast-ice near Davis was beautiful and calm. The icebergs on the approach to the station were lit up in stunning colours as the sun dipped below the horizon just before midnight. The ship continued to slowly eke its way further into the hard thick ice until the early hours of the morning to ensure we had a good, safe parking spot.

The next afternoon, I went ashore. I was keen to walk, after all the time on the ship, but a Hagglunds (caterpillar-tracked snow vehicle) was waiting to take us the 3km or so across the sea-ice to the station. It was fantastic (but slightly strange) to be on land after so long at sea. A few of the 25 winterers who had been used to seeing only eachother for the past 8 months also seemed to find things a little strange – the sudden influx was slightly overwhelming I think. They slowly got used to it.

That afternoon was spent having my station induction and tour. That night, straight after dinner I was lucky enough to get in on a walk with 5 others out across the sea-ice, past the ship to Gardener Island to visit the Adelie penguin rookery there. I just love watching the penguins. I could do it all day. Watching them at the rookery was amazing – some were courting, some sitting on eggs, some obviously youngsters wandering around on the outskirts learning what this whole breeding process is about, and others cheekily sneaking up to others’ nests to steal the best pebbles to take back to adorn their own. Though the sun does still dip below the horizon at the moment, there isn’t really any darkness – just a few hours of twilight, which we enjoyed as we walked back to the station.

The next day I had two shifts as part of the refuelling operation – from 12 midday to 4pm; and 12 midnight to 4am. This involved standing at the booster pump halfway along the fuel hose between the ship and the station, out on the sea-ice. My shift partner and I were responsible for monitoring the inlet and outlet pressures, making sure everything was running ok and being there in case the pump needed to be shut down. All sounded good in theory, and all went well on the first shift. Of course on the graveyard one though, at the coldest part of the night/morning, the pump decided to die rather severely and messily. We managed to turn the bypass valve on, and luckily the fuel still managed to get through. The mechanics looked at it the next morning and unfortunately it was terminal, but the refuelling was still completed in a reasonable time, without the pump. Phew.

That day (after finishing at 4am!) I was lucky enough to be told that I would be going on a ‘jolly’ that afternoon. One of the winterers, Linc, would be taking Dave (the other head office employee doing a staff familiarisation on this voyage), Lance (a voyage management trainee) and me out to Bandits’ Hut overnight. And we’d be flown there by helicopter! The chopper pilot pointed out points of interest along the way, as we zoomed above the sea-ice, icebergs and the awesome rocks of the Vestfold Hills. The hut’s location was just stunning: sitting on the edge of a frozen fjord, with icebergs frozen in just nearby. That afternoon we walked around a nearby island to look at some of the icebergs, and visit an area where Weddell seals were looking after their young pups. Gorgeous.

The next morning we walked out to visit a jade iceberg. We encountered some inquisitive penguins along the way, who saw us from afar looking all funny in our colourful clothes, and waddled and tobogganed over to check us out. The helicopter picked us up again just before lunchtime, and I was rostered for the rest of the afternoon/evening to help out in the kitchen. That night was the final night on station, and most people hung out in the bar saying goodbye to old and new friends, sipping various beverages served ‘on ice’. Glacial, of course.

The next morning it was time to pack up again and head back to the ship. It was actually sad to say goodbye to many of the great people I’d met. One of the girls was going to hide me in her bunk so I could stay the summer! We had beautiful weather again as we headed back out through iceberg alley away from Davis, and even the returning winterers couldn’t help getting their cameras out for some more photos.

It’s a much quieter ship now with only 29 expeditioners on board, compared to the 80-something on the way down. I’ve even got my own cabin! All those we picked up at Davis say they couldn’t have wished for a better group to have spent winter with. They are sad to be leaving, but happy to be heading home.

See you soon!



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Bergs and birds

Hi again,

We’re currently sitting in pack ice, while we’ve been enjoying some good weather. The sea ice research team have been waiting for weather like this to allow the helicopters to fly. One of the sea-ice projects involves doing acoustic ranging tests in preparation for 2012, when an automated underwater vehicle will be used to collect sea-ice mass data. The tests they are doing now are helping them to work out at what distance and in what conditions they will be able to operate the robot while still maintaining contact and control over it. The other project is using a helicopter equipped with a LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) system, camera and infra-red temperature monitor to gather information about sea-ice thickness. This is all being timed to occur when we are under the pass of a satellite, so that the satellite imagery can be compared with the data they collect. Measurements in the Arctic have shown rapid sea-ice decline, however this project will help to address the lack of data for the Antarctic, providing important information about the impact of climate change.

We were due to move to a new location overnight on Monday night, however the crew have taken the opportunity to do some engine maintenance, and so we remain in the same location (well, actually, we have been steadily moving with the ice drift, and we’re now 15 nautical miles further away from Davis station than when we first stopped)! The helicopters went out again today to do some more sea-ice research, but also to do a reccy to see if they could find an easy way for the ship to get through the ice. The ship apparently runs its two engines (a V12 and a V16) at almost 100% to break through the sort of thick pack-ice we’re currently in, but with a problem with one engine, we might not be able to do that, so the crew have been working hard to try to get it fixed.

I took a tour of the engine room last week (or was it the week before – I’ve lost all track of time!). It was quite amazing to see all the bits and bobs spinning and burning and pumping away. I don’t envy the people that work in it though. It was hot, noisy, cramped and seemed pretty dangerous down there! Jim was our enthusiastic tour guide. We started in the ‘control room’, where he told us of the engine room mascot, a bird called Pueblo. Jim showed us the ‘bird’: a brown, wiry, hair-ball-like round lump, with plastic googly eyes stuck on, sitting on a perch in a handcrafted little wooden cage hanging from the low ceiling. He told us, with the sort of glint in his eye and tone to his voice that can only mean trouble, that we had to pat the mascot before being allowed into the engine room. For good luck. Of course. I hesitantly poked the thing through the bars of the cage, with one finger, while looking at Jim’s smirk out of the corner of my eye. My fellow tour attendee did the same, while we waited for the thing to spring open and chomp us, or for a shoot of water to emerge and squirt us in the eye, or for an alarm to go off, or for it to start singing and moving like one of those fake mounted trout. But no, Jim proudly announced that the pet we were patting could give us a hint as to its origins by the first syllable of its name. Yes, ‘Poo’-eblo is a remnant from the waste treatment system – the leftover stuff that doesn’t decompose in the tank.

So away from that lovely image and on to more pleasant things. It has been just stunning being among the ice in this lovely weather. The icebergs are a common sight now, and the last few nights have seen plenty of people out on deck to watch the amazing sunsets. The wildlife has been a little scarcer than usual according to the old-hands, but I’ve seen a seal, quite a few Adelie penguins and two emperors now. I love watching and listening to the emperors as they waddle, toboggan and poke inquisitively around the ship. There has been one just near us this afternoon, all on his lonesome, just dawdling around and squonking now and then as he stands on top of an ice lump, surveying his kingdom.

Next time I write I will have had my initiation ceremony performed by ‘King Neptune’ (for crossing 60 degrees South for the first time). Although we crossed the line a while ago now, the King’s been a bit busy. And who knows, I might even be at Davis!

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Ice is nice

Hi again everyone,

Most of you will have heard about the terrible accident that occurred with the helicopter flying to the French base Dumont D’Urville from the ship L’Astrolabe. It was with sadness that we had our final briefing about the incident on the weekend, and observed one minute’s silence as a mark of respect. When the incident occurred, the Aurora Australis was diverted to assist. We continued to remain on standby as the situation progressed, in an area where we would be able to assist with a rescue or recovery operation, and then to assist L’Astrolabe should she have trouble breaking back through the ice. We were stood down once L’Astrolabe made her way safely out of the ice. She is now on her way back to Hobart with the four bodies of those from the helicopter on board. In the words of the Director of the French polar program, we all hope that this accident will be the last for a long time in Antarctica.

We are now heading westwards again on our way back towards Davis. Saturday night and Sunday we encountered some of the roughest seas of our voyage. 8m seas, with some wave sets of around 10m. Although my first couple of days on the ship weren’t so good, I’ve surprised myself with how well I seem to have gained my sealegs (certainly a lot better than some other poor people on board)! Trying to sleep that night was a challenge though. There were some tales of woe told the next morning over breakfast (as we gripped the table and our breakfast bowls, adjusting the angle of the bowls constantly to save the contents). I’m glad I’m not in a top bunk!

Big seas

My social committee colleagues and I have been busy with a number of events since I last wrote. We made decorations for Halloween, and held our quiz night which was great fun, although not without controversy! Questions were read to the eager crowd, answer sheets were marked and correct answers read out. And this was when the inevitable heckles and challenges from the audience often appeared – including on one question written by my cabin mate Barbara. She had written all the questions in the ‘Antarctica’ round, including a question about when and on which voyage emperor penguins were first sighted. There were some hearty challenges thrown back from the audience, however what I think some of them didn’t realise was just who their question writer was! A penguin biologist, Barbara has written a paper on the discovery of the species. She knows her pengies!

It’s been lovely sharing a cabin with Barb. Her enthusiasm for her work and her love of animals – particularly birds – is a joy to be around. And it’s great having a walking talking bird identification encyclopaedia right next to me! Looking through our cabin window, she pointed out the first penguin I’ve seen for the trip yesterday afternoon – an emperor sitting on his lonesome on an ice floe 100 metres or so from the ship. A couple of people saw seals yesterday too. My camera has been getting a good work out trying to take photos of the petrels and albatrosses that like to keep us company. I’m now very grateful for having gone digital. With my current blurry bird to in focus bird ratio, I hate to think how many rolls of film I would have churned through.

Emperor penguinAntarctic petrel

We’ve been in and out of ice now since Monday, which is exciting. With all the ocean-going up to this point, things hadn’t been feeling all that, well, ‘Antarctic’. We definitely know we’re here now though. Ice means relatively flat seas (hooray!), but it also means that the iceberg observation roster of which I am part is finally starting to get interesting! I put my name down to be part of the team at the start of the voyage, not realising at the time that it would involve shift work! They are only 2 hour shifts, but still, on top of changing our clocks back gradually by four hours since we left, my body clock is a bit out of whack! Monday involved a 4am shift, followed by a midnight shift that night. Ick. Ah well, at least I have a nice shift partner to talk to, and I’m making my contribution to science!

Icy railings on the Aurora AustralisPancake ice and petrelPancake ice

We have seen a few icebergs now, mainly on the horizon. The very first one that appeared on the radar as close enough to be visible (and for which everyone gathered on the bridge in anticipation, camera in hand) unfortunately ended with squinting and vague hand gestures as people tried to point out “that slightly lighter bit” in the fog. It was decided that that one wouldn’t count as the first berg for our competition, as you couldn’t actually ‘see’ it. The next day there finally was a visible one, although no-one had put their name down next to that time, so the winner was Camp Quality, who will get all the money placed as bets.

Expeditioners gathering to see the first iceberg

Speaking of betting, we had the running of the Melbourne cup yesterday. Four sweeps were drawn, with most of the money again going to Camp Quality. We all gathered in the theatre at 2pm (four hours after the actual Cup had been run) to watch ‘the race’. No champagne nor chicken here, nor fancy fascinators – polar fleece was the fashion item for the day. Everyone sat in anticipation as the inevitable problems getting computer to talk to projector were sorted out. Eventually the words “Emirates Melbourne Cup 2010” appeared, everyone went quiet, and the audio of the race call started. And they were off and racing! The laughter erupted as the cardboard cut-out horses stuck on drinking straws danced across the screen. An orange cardboard chicken, a seal, penguin, and ghost leftover from the Halloween decorations also took part in the jostling. Eventually the horse won by a nose, but many cried ‘fowl’ – the chook was the clear favourite.

Since I found my sealegs, I’ve been trying to make it to the gym most days. You have to pick your times though – with over 100 of us on board, the mornings are always really busy, and it’s only open for one hour in the afternoon. I might have to try going at some strange hour of the night, just so I can at least get in there! There’s only one treadmill, which has been free for me to use once, for fifteen minutes, out of all the times I’ve been in there. There’s also a recumbent bike (yuk); rowing machine, which makes me feel sick (that extra plane of motion seems to be just a bit too much to handle); an elliptical trainer with a distinct limp; and two exercise bikes, only one of which has all its adjustable bits working. So that one decent exercise bike has had me give it a good work-out, whenever I can get on it! I’ve never really been much of a gym person though, so at the moment I’m really craving a nice long walk, run or ride in the sunshine!

Til next time, Kristin

Iceberg in pancake ice

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Southern Ocean’s swell

This is the first of four posts, which were originally emails I sent while on a trip to Antarctica, aboard the Aurora Australis from October – December 2010. We were travelling to Davis station, on the first resupply voyage for the season. I’ll post these emails one by one, with some of the photos I took at the time. The posts are dated according to when they were originally sent. The first email was sent five days into the trip, after we’d left from Hobart.

Hi everyone,

The Antarctic Division had one of its voyages make it as a discussion point on talkback radio last summer.

Unfortunately not for any of the science that was being conducted, but for the fact that somebody forgot something. A rather important thing. The voyage was going to Macquarie Island to refuel the station there, but somehow the fuel hose didn’t make it onto the ship, and it wasn’t until it was well on its way that this was discovered. This prompted talkback hosts to ask listeners to call in with their stories of when they’d forgotten something. Tales were told of camping trips without tents, lunches without food, and departures from pit stops at service stations without children. I thought about the various times I’d forgotten things. Like a bushwalk with Jen where I forgot to pack cutlery and we ended up trying to eat our pasta using twigs. Or heading off on my round the world trip, only to get to check-in to discover I’d forgotten my ticket. Or turning up to an orienteering event after a four hour drive, when I’d forgotten to pack my shoes.

Forgetting things isn’t such a problem if you’re travelling to a city somewhere, because if you haven’t forgotten your credit card, it’ll generally be fine: you can always buy something if you really need it. But it’s trips like this one, where there are no shops, that I get a little nervous. I write lists and put things in piles and stress about whether I’ve forgotten anything. Before I left, I asked questions of colleagues who’ve been before about everything from tea bags to toiletries, shoes to shampoo, pills to pillows, in the hope of having thought of everything. Despite all this, I still managed to forget something. All my family and friends who wished me ‘bon voyage’ said how they are looking forward to seeing my photos when I get back. I’m glad to say that I hopefully will still be able to show some, despite having left the charger for my camera, along with the backup camera I was going to take, sitting in the corner of the loungeroom at home. Thank goodness for the kind soul with the same camera as me who is letting me share his charger!

Tonight will be my fifth night on the ship, and I’m pleased to report that my body (or my stomach and inner ear, more to the point) now seems to be adjusting to the constant movement. Although I have been taking the maximum dose of anti-seasickness tablets, so that might have something to do with it! I still felt pretty bad for the first two days, and anything other than lying down was a challenge queasiness-wise. Overall so far though, I’m nowhere near as bad as I’d feared, and I’m glad to be able to get up and about. Other seafaring old-hands walk around the ship completely non-phased, as if walking with one foot on the wall and one on the floor is completely normal. I’m the uncool newbie who still finds it amusing to watch and take part in all the wobbling and leaning and swaying – wanting to point out how funny people look just trying to do something as simple as making a cup of tea! I’m glad no-one can see the ridiculous manoeuvres I’ve come up with to brace myself so I can have a shower!

The other good thing about being up and about is being able to eat the food! The galley crew (did you hear me just then? I said ‘galley’ – I’m so down with the scurvy seadog lingo) do an amazing job getting such a wide variety of food out every breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everything is served buffet style, and you just help yourself to whatever you feel like. There’s a huge continental and cooked breakfast buffet; salads, soup, breads, and cooked selections for lunch; and a choice of about three or four things for dinner, with the salad bar.

So life between eating at the moment for me involves waiting for food, wondering what we’re going to eat next, thinking about how much I’ve already eaten, and working out how many hours it is until the next meal. Once I’ve finished with all that, I actually haven’t found it at all hard to fill in the time. I’m keen to get into the gym, but unfortunately going down to sweat it out in a tiny room in the bowels of the ship isn’t all that appealing right now. I’m still ever so slightly nauseous, and the seasickness tablets make me feel just that little bit spaced out. I’m aiming to wean myself off them, and give the exercise bike a go tomorrow. I’ll hold off on the treadmill for now, because (although I’m sure they’d be amusing) I’m not sure my sports doctor would approve of all the arms-and-legs-akimbo-type movements I’d have to do to counteract the unpredictable lurches and rolls of the ship as part of my ‘gradual, gentle’ return to running!

I’ve spent a bit of time hanging out on the bridge, just looking out at the never ending expanse of ocean. I’ve seen a few birds, and I always wonder what they’re thinking, as they cruise along beside us and check us out. They look so calm and knowing, and it’s amazing having another living creature for company, so far away from anything for them to perch on.

light-mantled sooty albatross
Snow petrel with light reflection from the ship

I’ve also kept myself busy taking photos, and I’ve almost read the one book I brought already, even though I’ve been trying to pace myself. I’m glad there’s a library on board! I’ve managed to get some uni work done, and volunteered for the job of ‘talks and movies coordinator’. Organising the talks involves trying to coerce people into giving presentations about their work, hobbies, travels or interests. So far we’ve had one of the scientists talk about the sea ice project that’s taking place on our way down, and an expeditioner show some photos and time lapse sequences. This role isn’t too bad, but the role of movie coordinator is one where you can never win! I’ve just taken to asking anyone who complains about the choice of movie for the night whether they have any better suggestions. They invariably don’t, so I take that as my licence to tell them to “quit your whinging!”

I’m also involved in the ‘social committee’ – we’re planning a number of events over the course of the voyage to keep everyone entertained, including Halloween and the Melbourne Cup. We’ve got an ice berg spotting competition going (50c bets on 15 minute time slots for the appearance of the first berg), and I’ve just been to a meeting about the quiz night this Thursday. I’m one of the question writers, which is actually going to be a bit hard – no Google!

Hope all is well back on land!

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Where to from here?

Well, the ‘Online News Production’ unit I was studying – for which this blog was created – has now well and truly finished. I’m not exactly sure what to do with this blog from here, but ‘newsworthystuff’ seems too cool a blog name to just discard. The stuff I put on here from now may not exactly be terribly newsworthy to the broader population…. but then again, who knows? When I become super famous one day, the minutiae of my university studies in 2010 may be newsworthy to the gossip columnists who’ll be searching for exciting information from my past. Yeah.

So, the plan for now is just to upload some of the essays and assignments I’ve done well at. And perhaps update the photography section if/when I have some time again to do some more photography.

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Drowning deaths in Australia up 71% over summer holiday period

A recent report from the Royal Life Saving Society of Australia shows a dramatic escalation in the number of drowning deaths this summer.

In the period from the 24th of December to the 12th of January, 41 people drowned – a 71% increase on the same period 12 months ago.

Royal Life Saving’s CEO Rob Bradley said thousands of people have been affected by these 41 drowning deaths, which he described as deeply troubling.

Surf lifesaving flag at Kingston Beach

Surf lifesaving flag at Kingston Beach

“Frankly, we are horrified and we remind people to make sure you are swimming at a recognised swimming location.  Do not over-estimate your ability,” he said.

Mr Bradley said the drownings happened at many different water locations.

“A common misconception is that most drownings happen at the beach. Inland waterways are very treacherous. Rivers and lakes may appear on the surface to be calm and tranquil but can be very dangerous,” Mr Bradley said.

In Tasmania, 10 surf life saving clubs provide volunteer patrol services on weekends from December to March.

Kingston beach, in the south of the state, is patrolled during these months on Sundays and public holidays.

Kingston beach patrol captain Phil Leishman said swimming between the flags is the safest way to go, but that not everyone heeds that message.

“The parents will bring the younger kids in here, but the teenagers will always go outside because it’s not cool, they don’t think it’s cool to swim between the flags,” he said.

Watch chair and surf lifesavers on Kingston Beach

Surf life savers on Kingston Beach

Kingston Beach with flags

Kingston Beach on a public holiday


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West Australian drought linked to Antarctic snowfall

An ice core from Antarctica has uncovered a link between drought in Western Australia and increased snowfall in Antarctica.

Dr Tas van Ommen, a glaciologist with the Australian Antarctic Division, studied a 750 year old ice core from Law Dome in East Antarctica.

The results of the research by Dr van Ommen and co-author  Vin Morgan have recently been published in Nature Geoscience.

Law Dome

Law Dome, Antarctica. Photo by Tas van Ommen © Commonwealth of Australia

“The ice core shows how much snow fell at Law Dome each year, and we have compared the modern portion of that with meteorological records from Australia,” Dr van Ommen said.

“What we found was amazing. While we were noticing extra moisture in east Antarctica and increasing snowfall, we were seeing dry conditions over south-west Western Australia,” he said.

There has been a 15-20% decline in winter rainfall in south-west Western Australia since the late 1960s, and at the same time there has been a 10% increase in snowfall at Law Dome.

Dr van Ommen said it appears that a change in atmospheric circulation patterns off southern Australia is responsible.

Dr Tas van Ommen collecting ice core

Dr Tas van Ommen collecting an ice core at Law Dome in Antarctica. Photo by Joel Pedro © Commonwealth of Australia

“In the past three decades the strength of persistent high and low pressure systems off southern Australia have increased, directing more warm, moist air south towards the coast of Antarctica and dry, cold air north in winter,” Dr van Ommen said.

“This does not appear to be in the range of natural variability: we can see from the ice core that an event like the increased snowfall at Law Dome would only come along once every 38,000 years without some change in climate patterns and, given the connection we see with Western Australia, it would suggest that the drought is also not a natural event,” he said.

Dr van Ommen said the change may be due to human-induced atmospheric changes; from reductions in ozone and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

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