Antarctica at what cost? Fighting over the far south.

By Victoria Metcalf 20/03/2014


What's the future for Antarctic expeditions?
What’s the future for Antarctic expeditions?

Antarctica still holds magical allure as perhaps the most mysterious continent we possess on earth. Even for those that have experienced time ‘on the ice’ it may feel more akin to being on another planet than our own. Part of the attraction is the extreme tag, well earned in this case, with harsh environmental conditions that test and invigorate and associated with that heroic tales of explorers who battled these elements with winners and losers- the cost of losing being life itself.

However, of late Antarctica has been suffering some negative press, or more specifically criticism directed at some of the scientists that conduct Antarctic research, especially those involved in the ill-fated Australian Antarctic Expedition (AAE: The Spirit of Mawson) lead by Chris Turney. Over Christmas and New Year the world watched as the ship with 74 passengers, scientists and crew on board, got packed in by wind-blown remobilised pack ice, then ended up undergoing a somewhat dramatic and protracted rescue after ten days where some of the rescuers’ ships themselves also succumbed to the power of the ice. The ship was just two weeks into a month-long expedition. All ended well for the ships, crew and passengers but the happy ending didn’t stop publicly aired scientific spats that ultimately may damage the reputation of Antarctic science.

Science on ice

Under the Antarctic Treaty System, Antarctica is a continent devoted to peace and science. That doesn’t stop non-scientists visiting there as tourists, albeit having completed trips with wallets considerably lighter. Whilst the continent itself may currently be devoted to peaceful or scientific activities, licence has also been given to fishing activities for species like the lucrative Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish (marketed as Chilean Sea Bass) in the waters around Antarctica which seem not to be protected to the same degree as the land itself. Hence, there’s a range of Antarctic users, each with their own motivations and values towards the deep south.

Even in the modern age, with high tech fabrics, tents, comfortable research stations, and heated vehicles Antarctica is still an inhospitable but magnificent place. It’s a location that in its current state will not be tamed. Consequently every icy foray made is done fully cognisant of the risks of operating in bitterly cold temperatures, changeable weather and visibility.

However, despite or exactly because of its challenges it is a superb place to conduct all kinds of science leading to the concept it’s a natural laboratory. And to be honest apart from the jaw-dropping, never want to leave, treasure every moment views just what you can do down there in terms of science as well as strangely how hard it is both to get to the ice and to conduct scientific studies there is all part of the allure.

Unlike many areas of scientific endeavour Antarctica acts like a big melting pot, where scientists, including social scientists and even artists are put together in close quarters. The types of research supported also are often multi-disciplinary in nature. With bases from different countries often proximal to each other (e.g. Scott Base and McMurdo Station) despite the vastness of the continent, researchers from different nations can also collaborate readily. All of this facilitates interesting interactions, beneficial to innovative approaches to research and the feeling of a team-based drive to global issues such as understanding climate change. In a sense, there’s a commonality to purpose down on the ice for scientists that tends to be a fabric holding everyone together.

Antarctica is also meant to be a continent devoted to peace but there’s a new wave of Antarctic players such as South Korea and China ramping up their participation in the icy party with careful chess manoeuvers being played and new bases being constructed strategically dotted over the continent. This is partly because of the dual use of bases for science and increasingly military purposes as well as the potential resources (including oil reserves) the icy realm may  reveal, protected until the moratorium on such exploitative activities ends in 2048. Whether it will be extended remains to be seen as the division becomes clearer between those that are pro exploitation and those that aren’t as much.

And now it seems the fabric holding the researchers together is fraying and ripping under pressure with even the scientists fighting over what to do with the continent (e.g. herehereherehere, and here). Forget perhaps the impacts of climate change – what about all the heat on the continent from this negative focus?

Assistance from other ships to get clear of ice has long been a reality in Antarctic waters especially for ice-strengthened ships as opposed to icebreakers
Assistance from other ships to get clear of ice has long been a reality in Antarctic waters especially for ice-strengthened ships as opposed to icebreakers.

The AAE copped a lot of flak during and immediately after the rescue attempts and several months on the fallout is still ensuing. Are there though some larger issues at stake?

The ship that looked like it might so dramatically recreate the Endurance expedition of Shackleton during the AAE Mawson-inspired expedition was the Akademik Shokalskiy. I have a great attachment to this vessel (well maybe not always as it was on the Shokalskiy that I discovered just how bad seasickness can be before finding my sea-legs). I first travelled to Antarctica on the Shokalskiy back in 1999 as one of the initial batch of Enderby Trust Scholarship recipients with Heritage Expeditions.

The Enderby Trust programme has an aim of taking young people into the Southern Ocean to create Antarctic and subAntarctic ambassadors. This private initiative linked to a commercial entity clearly worked in my case. My trip involved an epiphany sitting on the top of Possession Island, inhaling the smell of thousands of years of frozen guano, amused by the Adelies and gazing across to the awe-inspiring Trans Antarctic Mountains on the mainland. That was the point when I decided that I wanted to do Antarctic research and like so many who have been south, the Antarctic fever has been going ever since.


An annus horribilis in Antarctica

The AAE incident though involving the Shoklaskiy comes after what could be considered an annus horribilis for Antarctica. The headline act in this tragic year was the US shutdown which threatened to destroy the entire summer season for the US Antarctic Program (USAP) and could have had significant flow-on effects into other programmes, such as the New Zealand Antarctic programme too. Despite an end to the shutdown just as the US summer season on the ice was starting, the domino effect on the National Science Foundation (NSF) resulted in an effective loss of a month’s time and significant opportunity cost that is still being felt.

Surrounding that though are an increasing number of ice incidents, starting with the tragic twin otter crash of three Kenn Borek Air employees, including the pilot Bob Heath (whom I knew personally)  in January 2013 en route from the South Pole to home. Like the AAE, this one played out internationally in dramatic fashion, with bad weather hampering rescue efforts and raising hopes of a happy outcome that in this case sadly wasn’t to be. Nor does it look like their bodies will be recovered due to the risk of the operation.

During the next summer season at the end of 2013 there were two helicopters crashes within a few days. Three Australians (the helicopter pilot and two scientists) were seriously injured when their helicopter crashed returning to Davis Station after visiting a penguin colony with whiteout conditions closing in soon after crashing on December 2. That they survived was due to a second helicopter flying with them and the occupants being able to assist as well as in somewhat of a twist of fate, Kenn Borek planes and crew fortuitously on the ground at Davis and able to mount a rescue operation in a ‘just in the nick of time’ weather scenario.

Just a couple of days later at the new Korean base in the Terra Nova Bay area, a Korean helicopter crashed and the four injured on board were flown back to New Zealand. Then just over two weeks later two Britons (a pilot and an explorer) had to be rescued by a Chilean vessel after their helicopter crashed into the sea en route from Chile to Antarctica.

And boat incidents abound too over the last year. Aside from the Shokalskiy getting stuck December 2013, the ships that came to rescue passengers also came to grief. Chinese, French, Australian and US boats were despatched to assist but also struggled in the thick ice. Only a few weeks earlier the Aurora Australis had itself spent three weeks itself stuck in the ice heading back to Hobart after travelling to Davis Station, although this event generated little publicity.

February 2014 wasn’t the greatest of months either. On February 16 2014 the Japanese icebreaker Shirase also heading homeward with two expedition teams on board ran aground. The ship managed to free itself a few days later. The Shirase controversially may have some association in defending Japanese whaling activities in the Antarctic this summer. Then further afield the Korean krill fishing vessel Kwang Ja Ho travelling from Peru to Antarctic also ran aground on February 24 with 90 passengers on board and had to be rescued by Chilean vessels.

So yes, pretty much an annus horribilis.

Ship-based activities in Antarctica are not without risk
Ship-based activities in Antarctica are not without risk.

The inevitability of incidents

Perhaps it’s inevitable in waters and terrain still as inhospitable as those around Antarctica, where adverse weather is abundant that we continue to see incidents occurring due to the risks of operating in Antarctica. We could further postulate that due to increasing activitiy (scientific, fishing , tourism etc) in the Antarctic region that that again raises the likelihood of incidents like this and we should expect to see more. We could however, also note that many of these incidents happened on the homeward legs of trips, where crew are likely to be more tired, under pressure to arrive on schedule and in some cases to be anticipating arrivals home to loved ones and somewhat distracted- I hope that someone does some analysis of this. And we can only hope that all the nations involved are performing their own assessments and trying to find ways to lessen future risk.


Why pick on the AAE?

Most of these incidents though have received little media attention excepting the AAE rescue. It lead to bickering over social media in a variety of formats. Blows were hurled over Twitter, in blogs and other avenues. It seems strange to probably either scientists or the public that this group of Antarctic scientists could be spatting publicly. Why exactly was this occurring? Scientists don’t usually throw insults, at least not with so many witnesses. Chris Turney summed up the criticism as being accused of being a tourist ship, of being ill prepared for the conditions, of putting the rescuers at risk and of making light of the situation as well as the “irony of climate researchers being stuck in ice”.

The most obvious reason is that the AAE stranding occurred at the tail end of the Antarctic annus horribilis. The mounting of this rescue had significant impacts on the Antarctic programmes of those nations that sent rescue vessels with four nations involved. For example, the Aurora Australis was just  starting a resupply mission at the Australian Casey Station when it had to respond to the distress call and its rapid departure without completing the resupply had a significant impact on several ongoing science projects that will impact into 2015 activities. Completely reasonably the scientists whose projects were affected were less than happy about the impacts on their work.

The Chinese Xue Long (Snow Dragon) could not get close enough and ended up itself trapped in thick pack ice, but managed to send its helicopter to relay people to the Aurora Australis. The Chinese had to cancel their entire season in the area as a result. The French ship the L’Astrolabe was in the vicinity and being diverted caused it to can a two-week oceanographic research programme. The US icebreaker Polar Star was heading that way too. Just a few days later the winds changed and pushed the pack ice away again freeing both the Xue Long and the Shokalskiy with crew left on board, neither of them needing any further assistance.

All of this came after the already significant and long lasting impacts of the US shutdown particularly on the US Antarctic activities. Scientists on the ice were already under stress that season, more than just the ever-increasing stress of pressure to perform and seemingly ever decreasing pots of cash and tempers probably flared as a result. After all, it is such an extraordinary privilege to be on the ice, competition to get there amongst scientists is fierce, planning for field work often takes years, the costs are enormous and there are many long term programmes that require data collection every year. In other words, just like there are higher risks of incidents on the ice, there is more at stake for polar scientists too.

However, the Aurora Australia itself had been stuck in ice for three weeks earlier in the season, also impacting on the Australian programme but this ‘internal matter’  hadn’t generated the attention their assistance towards the AAE did and nor did those impacts get a mention in the ensuing debates.


There's no escaping ice in Antarctic waters
There’s no escaping ice in Antarctic waters

Another aspect of the hostility towards the AAE may in part due to some notion of Antarctic science elitism. After all, the AAE was a new model of Antarctic science, a privately funded expedition merging with a tourism trip, whereby passengers on board were meant to be operating as citizen science assistants. This kind of model for conducting science on the ice is one that we may see a lot more of in the future but it differs markedly from the traditional approach of conducting science associated with a nation’s Antarctic science programme. The breaking of this mould may be hard for many who have operated in this space for sometimes decades to take, with a view that this wasn’t ‘real science’. And the risks may be now perceived so great, that this model may only be used under the significant control of a national Antarctic programme.

The AAE were criticised for looking like they were having fun whilst trapped in the ice and not being sensitive enough to their situation, nor showing the gravitas that scientists should! And Chris Turney fought back with a “growing sense of frustration over what appears to be a mispresentation of the expedition in some news outlets and on the internet”. Mind you, Chris had hefty media support to enable counterattack, with journalists on board from The Guardian.

An anonymous blog post on suggests the most recent analysis of the voyage by Veronika Meduna for Insight on National Radio (about the radio piece here, podcast here)  may have been a slightly tempered report. As Veronika was on board as a journalist for the first leg of the voyage to the subantarctic islands she may for that reason not have felt at liberty to speak entirely freely. She however, says in response that she felt no such constraint. Potential conflicts do abound, however. The same blog post highlighted the fact that in the very small world of Antarctic research and the small science networks that exist, where Chris Turney sits on a Marsden Fund panel, helping to make decisions over what science gets funded, a perceived threat of missing out on funding may have lead New Zealanders not to question and criticise Chris Turney and the AAE as much as was perhaps warranted.

The AAE was heavily criticised for the weakness of its science plan presented on its website. Some concluded that this was effectively just a tourist trip with scientists giving an appearance of conducting science. Chris Turney, the expedition leader defended the plan, and there were multiple articles (e.g. here and here and here and here and here and here) released discussing the importance of the work they conducted on board, especially in the first leg of the trip to the subantarctic islands.

Sweeping statements were issued by Turney: for example, that one part of the study, with the aim of providing a novel view of the planet’s entire ocean circulation system, could offer a “legacy of the expedition that will last years after our return” and that the proof of the expedition would be in it’s peer-reviewed publications. The science plan as presented, with nice but vague language, does seem as if it couldn’t deliver on all the targets within the space of a single cruise and thus may be over-promising in an effort to get buy-in. This leaves one feeling unclear as to what exactly was planned, which is somewhat of a red flag. This was a public website however, presumably attempting to get broad buy-in in easily understandable terms. Moreover, there has been a long legacy of doing similar in terms of over-stating the cases within traditionally funded science projects too, although such habits may be on the decline. Turney suggests that in the future expeditions should seek endorsement for their plan from an independent science panel and in parallel with logistical planning.

Criticism also centred around the claim on the website and in an article by Turney 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 (AAD)”. This was misleading in that the AAE had obtained permits to be in the areas they travelled to and to obtain samples (involving environmental impact assessments) but there was no actual oversight of the science being conducted. Nor under the Australian system was there a need for examination of the safety of the expedition or self-sufficiency. The AAD hit back and criticised the expedition especially challenging Turney’s claims re approvals, with Nick Gales, the chief scientist of AAD, also stating the expedition “sparked yet another poorly informed debate on climate science” and issues where “independent Antarctic tourism get conflated with the conduct of Antarctic science. Science is invariably the loser”.

The cost of the rescue was estimated to be about A$2.4M for the Australians (unknown costs for other nations) and their government is planning recovering that cost from the Shokalskiy’s insurers. Such high costs in already constrained Antarctic and otherwise budgets need to be examined in light of better managing risk. Some bickering occurred amongst nations over the necessity of the rescue call-out. No doubt the fallout from the rescue mission will be felt for some time to come.


The freeze-out

The AAE had a hefty media presence on board for both voyages and with such a high level of media outputs, when things went wrong and as the tall poppy doing things differently, it was an easy victim for attack.

Another factor at play in the scientist vs. scientists match is undoubtedly a fear of change. This new model, embracing private expeditions and association with commercial activities (tourism) is bound to rock the boat so to speak. There was a lot of public debate around decision-making being compromised to satisfy the tourists on board in giving them an additional on ice experience, when some claimed they should have noted changing ice conditions and resumed travelling hours earlier. It was used as a discussion around why commercial activities and science can’t mix.

However, Aaron Russ, Expedition Leader for Heritage Expeditions, who the AAE subchartered the Shokalskiy from, noted in the interview for Insight with Veronika Meduna on Radio New Zealand that given the situation preceding getting stuck, he likely would not have done anything differently to the AAE. Chris Turney also found himself refuting the claims that they could have avoided becoming stuck. The Datascinz post claims that this position of not engaging in looking at better risk management practices is dangerous and disappointing.

Aaron also welcomed science activities on Heritage Expeditions cruises (I’ve been on board and participated in sample collection with the full support of other Expedition staff)  and he saw plenty of opportunities moving forward for increasing relationships between travel operators and scientists.

Not only is there likely (and understandably) a fear of change among some Antarctic scientists towards this new model, but perhaps a feeling of lack of control at this kind of scenario, leading to further resistance and hence the outcry. After all, the traditional pathway is relatively linear and within it there is a form of a hierarchy. Scientists apply through their national funding systems for funding and logistical support and when granted, arrangements are made for their field season for one or more years before having to reapply. More senior Antarctic scientists may be more likely to receive repeated support. The AAE presents a model that is a threat to this. Anyone (but presumably someone with a suitable track record or a great ability to market themselves/their science) could mount an expedition contingent upon raising enough financial support. This is a less defined pathway of conducting Antarctic science. It means cutting the fabric into difference pieces and stitching things together in a new shape. And both scientists and the managers of Antarctic science programmes may find this is a coat that just does not fit well.

Due to the possible conflicts on board with passengers seeking a tourism experience, opponents may feel that they wouldn’t have enough control over the science they could conduct during their field season- who would take precedence and does everyone want an inexperienced and possibly elderly selection of citizen science field assistants?

At the heart of the AAE rescue issue there is undoubtedly competition- the threat that there’s now a new avenue of conducting science on the ice and hence a feeling of increased pressure. Scientists are perhaps busy thinking: will someone else do the science I want to do by these means? And scientists are always worried about being robbed as a legacy of a fiercely competitive environment of scarce resources- this may only compound the unease. Alok Jha, journalist on board stated that “at the heart of all the discussions are fundamental questions about who owns access to Antarctica and what activities should be allowed there, now and in the future” in a recent analysis piece on the expedition.

With nations positioning themselves for the long term in Antarctica, they may look at the risks arising from this expedition, including public perceptions and decide whether or not such private activities can be supported, as well as considering what disagreements may arise between nations over what steps to go to when assisting distress calls.


Large floating pieces of ice can quickly pack together in adverse weather to lock a ship in place
Large floating pieces of ice can quickly pack together in adverse weather to lock a ship in place.


Were there any benefits to the AAE stranding?

It’s possible to see that the media storm surrounding the AAE may not have spelled all doom and gloom for Antarctica and Antarctic research. It certainly captivated people and raised profiles of both the continent and the science down there with Turney claiming that “Never before has a science expedition reached out live to so many people from such a remote location”. The negative focus that eventuated isn’t necessarily beneficial, however. For example, all the attention and the supposed irony of being stuck in the sea ice whilst studying climate change effects and decreasing sea ice was great fuel for climate change deniers, although naturally they got some of the critical details wrong. It did show however,  just how difficult it is to conduct field work in Antarctica and potentially how dedicated we Antarctic scientists are to our jobs.

It also highlighted just how cooperative nations can be towards each other in Antarctica when someone has a problem and needs assistance. Some nations used the press to their advantage, with China claiming the rescue mission was a huge success, earning it positive public relations when many nations are edgy about its growing dominance on the ice. Whilst many Antarctic scientists may feel that Antarctica should remain a no-exploit zone, political movements across nations suggest this philosophy isn’t shared at governmental levels and such positive press was a coup for China.

However, what the criticism and debate showed best of all is that scientists are humans, with emotions and the ability to be irritated by each other’s actions just like anyone else. It portrayed Antarctic scientists as incredibly passionate about their work and their desire to protect and understand Antarctica (and think more globally) and these aspects should be viewed in a partially positive light. More than anything it brought scientists out of ivory towers and very much into the public domain, not afraid to air their viewpoints over social media. These aspects are fundamentally important to fostering connections with the public (although ideally not in the vein the AAE debate found itself) and this public engagement is necessary whichever model of field work (traditional or cruise-associated) is chosen.

Ultimately though scientists should be working together better to explore all methods by which Antarctic science can continue to be conducted. There is a strong focus on multi-disciplinary approaches to conducting science but the AAE trip reminds us we need to also look at multi-avenue approaches too to work smarter. One could look at all the incidents that have occurred, the impacts of the shutdown and the costs of doing field work in Antarctica, the fierce competitiveness that still exists to secure research funding and conclude it’s simply not worth being on the ice at all. That though would be a terrible shame as Antarctica really is the ideal natural laboratory across many different disciplines. Unravelling its mysteries may hold clues to some of the global issues facing the world today, most of all climate change effects.

Antarctica at what cost? I’d like to think there is still no cost that can be placed on the value of Antarctica. But the safety of the people that work there is an entirely different matter.