Making sense from the snow and mist‏

(Note: I ummed and ahhed about whether to bother with this article and had left it in the draft file. But driving into work this morning, they interviewed Australian Antarctic Division Director, Dr. Tony Fleming, who I know from our past careers to be an excellent scientist and manager. Tony was measured in his comments but clearly pretty annoyed with this expedition and straight out said that his Division had not given “the official stamp of approval” to the science and he had spoken to the expedition leader asking him to stop saying so).


If I’m honest, I’d never heard of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition-2 until they got stuck in the ice in Commonwealth Bay over Christmas. After the drama of the rescue, I naturally made inquiries of colleagues at the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC to see if the distraction of the Aurora Australis would disrupt their work.


Social media can suck you in. I’m now a committed AAE-2 junkie. My wife thought I was checking cricket scores constantly on the phone but when it went on long after the English had crumbled she asked what I kept looking at. Now she’s checking what all the fuss is about. Check #spiritofmawson if you are on Tweeter but be careful, it’s addictive.


For the uninitiated, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition-2 is “inspired” by Douglas Mawson’s initial Australasian Antarctic Expedition (I’m not sure if Mawson now gets a “1” added like the first in a movie series once the sequel  comes out). Researchers at the University of New South Wales, led by Professor Chris Turney, set up a six-week expedition. To pay for the trip, they sold tickets for tourists to accompany the trip, as “science volunteers”.


After what appears to have been a successful first leg of the trip, going to sub-Antarctic islands, the second leg ran into problems when the ship, the Russian-flagged Akademik Shokalskiy got stuck in sea ice on Christmas Eve. A distress call was made and vessels involved in French, Australian, Chinese and eventually American Antarctic research all got diverted to provide assistance. Eventually a helicopter from the Chinese ship evacuated the passengers to the Australian ship. In doing so the Chinese ship itself got stuck and the American “mother of all icebreakers” got quickly dispatched from Sydney to help. As it turns out the Russian and Chinese ships have freed themselves, saving themselves the embarrassment of having the Americans get them out.


All a bit of mess really, sparking two waves of criticism of the University of New South Wales team.


The first wave was an enormous spewing of vitriol from climate change skeptics based on the irony of climate change scientists getting stuck in ice they said had disappeared. Never mind that the scientists involved had never said anything of the kind. This response is now par for the course in the realm of social media and climate. Other than noting just how nasty and personal it gets, I won’t consider it further.


But it would be unwise to dismiss the criticism altogether. Because there is another source of concern that has wider implications for planning research and how to react when things go pear-shaped. This second wave is coming from other scientists and centres around whether this was a science trip with a bit of tourism or a tourism trip with a bit of science. Was it an “adventure” or an “expedition”? The attitude and response to risk hinge on the intent of the mission.


Without going into massive detail of the comments and criticisms of various blogs (and there are masses, including defence of the science in Nature from Chris Turney), I’m going to jump right to my (interim) conclusion and say that there was a problem with the AAE-2 in that it failed to truly define whether it was a scientific expedition or a tourism adventure. Plenty of scientific expeditions take along a journalist or two; many tourism operations to the Antarctic provide subsidised spaces to scientists who can do a bit of work and give a few lectures. But the mix on the AAE-2 doesn’t seem to have been clear cut.


Chris Turney has come out strongly with a “this was no pleasure cruise” defence. But he takes it too far, claiming to have the “official stamp of approval” from the Australian Antarctic Division for his science when in fact they just sign off on environmental impact statements as I understand things. The “ice strengthened” passenger vessel has become an “ice breaking research vessel” in reaction to criticism. The real crux of the issue comes down to whether the tourists/expeditioners responded adequately to the closing weather on Christmas Eve and Professor Turney hasn’t addressed this matter satisfactorily to date. We know from one of the passenger’s blogs that “Mary” fell into a tidal crack during this time in what sounds like a near disaster. In talking up the perils of the cruise, Professor Turney arms his critics with the very obvious response of “why did you take your kids?”


 While I don’t agree with the vitriol contained in many of these types of responses, It isn’t unreasonable to question.


It will likely take months to sort out exactly what happened. Maybe years if insurers start legal proceedings. But in a world where environmental research in particular is relying on volunteers, public donations, sponsorship and the like, the clear lesson so far to me is to make sure the purpose of such ventures is very clearly understood by all involved so that expectations can be managed. When things do go wrong, all “spin” needs to be dropped and questions answered in a straightforward manner. In this case, the University of New South Wales team has “regretted” the impact on other organisations and thanked them for the rescue. But each time they do so, they seem to add words to the effect that the impact on others won’t be too much – obviously they wouldn’t actually know and it sounds a bit weasel worded. I suspect a straight apology is better.

Click here to listen to Tony Fleming’s interview on the ABC>