RESEARCH

Antarctic expedition mired in ice -- and controversy

As efforts to rescue a Russian ship stranded in Antarctic sea ice intensify, so has criticism of the expedition that led to the ship's stranding.

A large U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, the Polar Star, is en route to rescue the Akademik Shokalskiy, which has been stuck in Antarctic sea ice since late December.

Its passengers were following in the footsteps of a historic trek by the Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson. The trip, called the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, had been billed as a re-enactment of Mawson's original adventure, with climate science goals in mind.

The expedition scientists, led by Chris Turney, of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, Australia, planned to replicate Mawson's observations of 100 years ago on the part of the Antarctic coast south of Australia and New Zealand.

"The three years' worth of observations gleaned by Mawson and his men provide a unique dataset against which we can compare the changes seen today," the project's website states.

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With journalists tagging along, the Twitter hashtag #SpiritOfMawson, a promotional website, and its own fundraising campaign on the site indiegogo, the trip has had a strong public relations component, as well.

It is for perhaps this reason that the expedition, and the resource-intensive rescue effort it has needed, has come under fire for diverting valuable resources from others attempting to do science on the frozen continent.

"A lot of people have been saying that this expedition was already kind of off on the wrong foot because they were inviting tourists on board," said Michael Robinson, a historian at Hillyer College at the University of Hartford who studies the history of exploration.

In an email to columnist Andrew Revkin of The New York Times, Joe McConnell, a climate researcher at the Desert Research Institute who was working in Antarctica when the Russian ship ran into trouble, called the negative impacts to the Australian science program "pronounced."

Diverting support from other missions

That is because ships that would have been unloading research supplies and supporting science have been diverted to the rescue attempt.

Climate skeptics have also seized upon the stuck boat as both an example of waste in scientific expeditions and a sign that, since there's plenty of ice in the polar region, climate change isn't happening.

They have launched a rival hashtag for the adventure, #shipoffools.

A Chinese ship, the Xue Long, which first attempted to rescue the stuck ship, is now at risk of being stuck itself.

An Australian icebreaker, the Aurora Australis, to which the scientists and other passengers were taken following a helicopter rescue, was diverted from delivering supplies to the Australian's Casey Station in Antarctica.

And the Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star, now headed to rescue Akademik Shokalskiy, would normally be breaking a path through the ice to McMurdo Station, a National Science Foundation base.

That channel is used for food and fuel resupply to the station, said Peter West, an outreach and education manager with the NSF's polar program.

The NSF polar research office is confident that the Polar Star can complete this mission and return to break the path to McMurdo with "minimal impact" to the U.S. Antarctic Program, said West.

Since research in Antarctica is based on the many pieces of weather, people and supplies fitting together, a hiccup or missing piece caused by any research project, regardless of the country it is affiliated with, can end up affecting all research, said Rachel Obbard, an engineer at Dartmouth College who conducts research in Antarctica.

"Any kind of research down there, whether it is through the auspices of the national polar research foundations or privately funded, eventually ends up being supported by everyone, in that if you have an accident like this, people don't just stand by," said Obbard.

Costs vs. scientific benefits?

The question Obbard and Hartford's Robinson both raised was whether or not the potential benefits of the mission outweighed its potential costs.

"Unforeseen circumstances bedevil even the best-planned expeditions," noted Obbard. "A risk-rewards assessment, so to speak ... must take into account not only risks and rewards to the expedition and its members and backers, but to the broader society that inevitably supports it."

Obbard also wondered about the contingency plans for the expedition and if it had an icebreaker on call to support it.

Turney did not respond to requests for comment prior to publication of this article.

The expedition leader did, however, respond to criticism of the scientific merits of his expedition with a post on the website of the journal Nature.

Titled "This was no Antarctic pleasure cruise," Turney noted in his opinion piece that the findings of the expedition "include many firsts for the region." He expressed surprise at the criticism the expedition had received and also pointed out that the publicity generated by the boat's stranding had brought additional attention to the researchers' work.

"When the number of television and radio interviews increased, so did our mentions of the science," Turney wrote.

Yet the jolly videos, singalongs and tweets the researchers and other passengers posted about their predicament seemed at times to demonstrate a cavalier attitude, as if they viewed getting stuck in ice as just another part of their grand adventure.

Fortunately, the mishaps of Turney's expedition fall far short of those that befell Mawson's original.

In that trek, which took place from January 1912 to February 1913, both of Mawson's field companions died, he was forced to eat his own sled dogs, he fell down a crevasse, and with 100 miles of trekking to go before returning to the base, the scientist-cum-explorer lost the skin off the bottom of his feet and was forced to tread on raw, blistered soles.

Hartford's Robinson, who has tagged along on recreated expeditions as well as researched past scientific expeditions, pointed out that Turney's expedition is not so different from many others, historic and present.

"The thing is, if you look at the history of scientific exploration, it's almost always a heterogenous group of people that have many different motives for putting an expedition forward," he said.

"Even NASA expeditions are the same way. There's a promotional aspect, there's a scientific aspect, there's a geopolitical aspect. So for people to be critiquing him just on that basis, I think, is a little thin."

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