Following the rescue of passengers from the stranded Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy, the expedition's leader, Chris Turney, has spoken out about the importance of science as a driver for the voyage (Nature 505, 133; 2014). No nation hesitates to aid vessels in distress, so why have these events proved so controversial?
Turney said that the “science case” for the voyage was approved by, among others, the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD). But the AAD had no role in assessing, endorsing or approving the scientific merit of the expedition's research plans.
Turney's expedition was a private venture whose research plans were unrelated to Australia's national Antarctic science programme, which is led and managed by the AAD. His voyage aimed to “meld science and adventure” and included as many paying tourists as it did scientists and students (www.spiritofmawson.com).
The rescue disrupted the science and operations programmes of Australia, China and France, who all diverted their ships at the request of the Australian Rescue Coordination Centre, which ran the aid operation. A US icebreaker was also diverted. The financial cost of the exercise is not yet known.
Critics have questioned Turney's claims regarding the scientific importance of the voyage. The trip was relatively brief and seemed to involve the collection of routine samples. By contrast, research projects supported by national polar programmes are multi-year, multinational efforts that rely on sophisticated bespoke equipment.
As a result, Turney's expedition has sparked yet another poorly informed debate on climate science and has seen issues associated with independent Antarctic tourism get conflated with the conduct of Antarctic science. Science is invariably the loser in such cases.
See also News: Researchers question rescued polar expedition.