The Trapped Polar Expedition: Spectacle or Serious Science?

January 9, 2014

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The Akademik Shokalskiy. Photo credit Flickr user Marie and Alistair Knock via a Creative Commons License.
The Akademik Shokalskiy. Photo credit Flickr user Marie and Alistair Knock via a Creative Commons License.

The ship Akademik Shokalskiy, better known as “The Spirit of Mawson” or Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), made headlines for becoming icebound at year’s end and requiring helicopter rescue for its passengers.

Now the ship’s purpose in the Antarctic — an expedition to find out how the Antarctic has changed since Mawson made his important but ill-fated Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-1914 — has drawn fire for being more spectacle than real science.

The expedition planned to use Mawson’s original data as a baseline to compare to current observations of ocean currents, sea ice, and wildlife.

The researchers argue their findings will improve understanding of past and future climate change especially within Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. The New Zealand Department of Conservation, the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, and the Australian Antarctic Division approved the scientific research.

In addition to research goals, the expedition set out to improve science outreach and public interest in polar research.  There were chances for people to join the trip as paying tourists, participate in Hangouts on Air, or follow the expedition blogs. In addition, two Guardian reporters were on board blogging about the expedition on Antarctica Live.

But these activities drew heated critique, as did the diversion of ice breaking vessels originally scheduled to deliver supplies to other Antarctic research stations. (Some stations lost up to a year’s worth of data due to the delays).

Still, if the ship had not required rescue,  it is unlikely that anyone would have criticized the science or the publicity.Was the journey worth the cost? This Cooler offers a roundup of the debate:

Definitely Not: Pseudo-Science & Too Risky

Yves Frenot, director of the French Polar Institute, whose supplies were diverted during the rescue mission, called the AAE “psuedo-scientific” and a “commemorative expedition,” but the report does not provide his reasoning.

Robert Headland of Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute (which also likely lost supplies or data as a result of the rescue), focused more on logistics: suggesting the AAE should have known to use an ice-breaker rather than an ice-strengthened ship, for instance.

Probably Not: More Damage Than Good

Andrew Revkin of Dot Earth, prompted by a note from Joe McConnell (another researcher whose supplies were diverted), questions the expedition based on the cost of the rescue and the fact that it appropriated resources headed for more “serious” scientific endeavors:

“The leaders of the current expedition – Chris Turney, Chris Fogwill and Greg Mortimer — are seasoned field scientists. But the bungled trip now threatens to tarnish the wider field of Antarctic science. Particularly vexing is what seems to be a devil-may-care attitude expressed by some of those on the trapped ship.”

Revkin notes that climate deniers have (wrongly) latched onto this story of climate researchers stuck in ice as “proof” against climate change. And then there’s that video of the ship’s New Year’s celebrations.

Probably Not: Time Will Tell

William Connolley comes at it slightly differently:

“Was the trip important enough to justify the cost that is now mounting? is obviously *not* the right question to ask – if they knew they were going to get stuck and need rescue, then obviously they wouldn’t have gone. A righter question would be was the trip important enough to justify (the cost that is now mounting) times (the probability that cost would be incurred)?”

In the end Connolley feels that criticism of the voyage’s science was likely warranted because most of their goals were either too large for one voyage to undertake, could be done by other groups, or are already being researched by other groups.

He admits, however, that the published science could have more merit than it might first appear.

Not Enough Info: Why Are We Shouting?

And Then There’s Physics is surprised by the heated debate surrounding the AAE.

The blogger points out that science data from the voyage hasn’t been published yet and so can’t be evaluated. And he notes that even the seemingly basic criticisms seem willing to jump to conclusions:

“I don’t know if they did something that was especially risky or not. Ships do get stuck in the Antarctic sea-ice. It’s a known hazard and has happened before.”

Concerned at First: Convinced of Merit

A post by Michael Robinson in National Geographic also questions the value of the expedition (and any that try to recreate historic expeditions) but concludes that:

“The second AAE [the first was Mawson’s 1911-1914 voyage] did not set out to prove anything about Mawson’s earlier expedition. Its leaders hope to use Mawson’s observations as a baseline for their own scientific findings—a benchmark of climatic changes that will illuminate Antarctica’s future, not its past. As such, the voyage will prove to be well worth the time and effort.”

Of Course: Science Will Prove It

The lead scientist of the expedition, Chris Turney, defends the voyage in the Guardian.

Turney argues forcefully that there are real gaps in Antarctic research for the voyage to address, that the expedition was carefully planned, and that the published science will eventually speak for itself.

Regarding allegations that the team was not serious, he says that much of the levity was to boost morale in a trying situation. He also defended the presence of tourists and journalists on the ship by emphasizing the need to excite the public about science. And he thinks the AAE did just that.

What do you think? Did this expedition serve a legitimate science purpose? How far should researchers go in engaging the public? Can a publicity spectacle be science?\

Update 1/12/14:

Tony Fleming of the Australian Antarctic Division has gone on record clarifying that the AAD did not consider or approve the scientific program of the expedition. They only approved the expedition based on its environmental impact.

Update 1/12/14

An email from Yves Frenot clarifying his comments:

Thanks for your message and your request of clarification. I recognize that my interview to AFP was not reported with details. So I am pleased to provide the following reasons at the origin of my statements, in particular the use of term “pseudo-scientific”:They are obviously scientists and PhD students on board and part of the project can be related to scientific activity. Nevertheless, it seems that there are also a number of journalists and tourists (or at least people who paid for their participation in this trip – see start from $8,050). So it is not a pure scientific expedition.

Moreover, the organizers explain in the website of the expedition and in the press that “All our science work has been approved by the New Zealand Department of Conservation, the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service and the Australian Antarctic Division”. In your blog you use the same argument: “The New Zealand Department of Conservation, the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, and the Australian Antarctic Division approved the scientific research”. I have no idea of the position of the NZ Department of Conservation, but I know that it is not the case for the Australian Antarctic Division. From my knowledge, AAD delivered permit for the expedition, as the Australian Competent Authority related to the Antarctic Treaty and Madrid Protocol procedures, but has not evaluated the science plan and did not provide any support for these specific scientific activities. I suspect that it is the same for the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service who is in charge of the authorizations for access to Macquarie Island.
So, my comments were based mainly on the fact that this project has not followed the usual procedures of selection and scientific evaluation by peer-review processes. Scientific research in Antarctica is an expensive activity for the National Antarctic Programmes and, for this reason, is highly competitive. In other words, if I am convinced of the quality of the science carried out by most of the National Antarctic Programmes, I have some doubt on such a privately-funded expedition, especially when reference is made to the support of scientific organizations whereas it is not true (at least for AAD). But I should be really pleased to see in the next months the scientific results of this expedition in high rank peer-review journals when published, if any.
Finally, how can we believe that such a two legs trip of few weeks will provide answers to all the questions listed in the expedition webpage (see
  1. gain new insights into the circulation of the Southern Ocean and its impact on the global carbon cycle
  2. explore changes in ocean circulation caused by the growth of extensive fast ice and its impact on life in Commonwealth Bay
  3. use the subantarctic islands as thermometers of climatic change by using trees, peats and lakes to explore the past
  4. investigate the impact of changing climate on the ecology of the subantarctic islands
  5. discover the environmental influence on seabird populations across the Southern Ocean and in Commonwealth Bay
  6. understand changes in seal populations and their feeding patterns in the Southern Ocean and Commonwealth Bay
  7. produce the first underwater surveys of life in the subantarctic islands and Commonwealth Bay
  8. determine the extent to which human activity and pollution has directly impacted on this remote region of Antarctica
  9. provide baseline data to improve the next generation of atmospheric, oceanic and ice sheet models to improve predictions for the future
All these topics are at the basis of the current international researches and involve thousands scientists over the world, with the support of hundred scientific organizations, funding agencies, polar institutes etc.Even if some records obtained during this expedition can be useful contributions, they will remain a very small component of the huge scientific effort in these domains throughout the world. Assert the contrary would undoubtedly sow doubt in the public mind and harm the scientific research in general. At the present time, it would certainly be a disservice for the cause that this expedition organizers want to defend.


Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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  1. Raising public awareness of the threats from climate change to polar regions is important and I applaud the AAE for its efforts.

    Regarding sea ice variability, it is crystal clear from modern satellite measurements during recent decades that there is substantial regional variability in sea ice extent and thickness from day to day and year to year, but also long term trends driven by climate and other factors such as ocean circulation. It is not possible to derive long term trends within such variability from short duration measurements in 1911-1914 and a few weeks in 2013. The scientists on the AAE certainly know this but the climate deniers who have used the local increase in sea ice in 2013 as evidence against anthropogenic climate change apparently do not.

  2. “…the Australian Antarctic Division approved the scientific research.”

    Tony Fleming, director of the Australian Antarctic Division, has recently said in a radio interview that his organisation did not consider the science aspect of the the AAE trip and had only approved its environmental impact. He said “I feel that we have been mispreprsented”.

    See here:

    “Did this expedition serve a legitimate science purpose? How far should researchers go in engaging the public? Can a publicity spectacle be science?”

    Also note the “Science Case” page of the Spirit of Mawson site you link to above didn’t include the claim of Australian Antarctic Division approval until some time on or after the 2nd of January. So it seems self evident that someone involved in the project is trying to claim it served a “legitimate science purpose” by using dubious methods that possibly go “too far” when engaging the public?