Stuck in the ice

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip,” The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle, by Sherwood Schwartz and George Wyle.

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The Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2014- 2014, known also as the Spirit of Mawson expedition, intended to undertake a programme of research across the region building on the work of the 1911–1914 expedition led by Douglas Mawson.

The expedition’s website included a statement of 9 aims signed by Professor Chris Turney of the University of New South Wales and Dr Chris Fogwill, the leaders of the team, including;

1. gain new insights into the circulation of the Southern Ocean and its impact on the global carbon cycle,
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,
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.

ABC News (Australia) is owned and funded by the Australian Government and its charter creates ‘editorial independence.’

The ABC’s Lateline programme of 25 Nov 2013 described it as “the largest Australian expedition to the Antarctic with an 85-person team to try to answer questions about how climate change in the frozen continent might already be shifting weather patterns in Australia.”

According to the ABC News website 26 November 2013, “the research stakes are high because the Antarctic is one of the great engines on the world’s oceans, winds and weather, especially in Australia. Already scientists believe there is evidence of climate change.”

“The southern hemisphere westerly winds encircle Antarctica and over the last 20 or 30 years or so they’ve been pushing further south,” Professor Turney said. “It’s almost like Antarctica is withdrawing itself from the rest of the world.”

The Russian sub-charter ship, Akademik Sholalskiy, left Bluff, New Zealand on 8 December 2013 but became trapped in the ice off Antarctica on 24 December. The following day the Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Canberra ordered three ships, a Chinese vessel, a French vessel and the Aurora Australis to lend assistance.

On 31 December the Aurora attempted a rescue getting within 10 nautical miles of the stricken ship but abandoned its attempt fearing it may also become trapped in the ice. The French vessel, L’Astrolabe, was released from the rescue. On 2 January the passengers from the Shokalskiy were successfully transferred to the Aurora Australis using helicopters from the Chinese vessel, Xue Long.

However the following day, the Chinese vessel itself became trapped in the ice. The US ice breaker vessel, Polar star, had been dispatched on 5 January however both vessels were able to free themselves on 8 January after a change in weather conditions.

On 14 January the Aurora Australis with rescued passengers on board completed its restocking mission to Casey station, Antarctica, and docked in Hobart, Tasmania on 22 January with the rescued passengers on board.

John Young, general manager of emergency response at the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, said the stranding can be neatly explained as a weather event.

“Commonwealth Bay, where the ship was conducting its operations for the expedition, is usually relatively free of ice but a prolonged period of wind from the southeast moved the ice flows around and it has packed up in the vicinity of the Shokalskiy,” he pointed out. “This is how most ships get beset by ice.”

Young said it was a prevailing wind that caused the issue and it was a reverse of the prevailing wind that solved it. Contrary to Turney’s view that this was all old, thick ice, Young said the ice was of varying ages. “In the pack is some a few years old, some one year old and some newer than that, with snow on top.”

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Many observers noted a shift in the nature of media accounts after the ship became trapped. The ABC’s AM programme 30 December 2014 referred to “passengers from a Russian cruise ship.” The ABC News Australia website 31 December 2014, referred to “74 people on board, including scientists, crew members and paying passengers…”

An article by Nicky Philips and Colin Cosier for the Sydney Morning Herald titled “Stuck in the ice” gave a lengthy and detailed account of the voyage without using the terms ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’.

Their article noted the captain and his staff on the ship’s bridge did not look happy over the time taken for the passengers visiting nearby rocky islands to return to the ship and it appears they were not the only ones displeased.

Director of the French Polar Institute, Yves Frenot, described the Russian trip as a “pseudo-scientific expedition” which had caused massive disruption to the science programs of three nations.

“This kind of commemorative expedition has no interest from a scientific point of view,” he said.

Because of the rescue operations, French scientists had to scrap a two-week oceanographic journey aboard L’Astrolabe and further disruption had been caused to the Australian program. “The Chinese have had to cancel all their scientific program and my counterpart in Australia is spitting tacks with anger, because their entire summer has been wiped out.”

But Turney replied saying they were “frustrated over what appears to be a misrepresentation of the expedition in some news outlets.” He said the expedition was not a “jolly tourist trip” as some had claimed and that it will be judged by its peer-reviewed publications on the scientists’ return.

He was perhaps in part referring to comments by expedition member John Black, “It’s blowing and absolute blizzard here, there’s a total white-out, there’s snow blowing everywhere and it’s damn cold outside. Everybody’s fine on board…it’s a fantastic adventure we’re having,” reported on the ABC News website, 31 December 2013.

Alvin Stone is a public relations officer for Media and Communications at UNSW ARC Centre for Excellence for Climate System Science.

On the 2 Jan 2014, Stone told the Australian newspaper, “One of the misconceptions is that this is a climate-change voyage full of climate scientists, which is actually not true. There are a couple of climate scientists on board with biologists, geographers, looking at penguin and seal populations and a whole lot of other things. The idea of the expedition was to do a very broad scientific expedition that mimicked what Mawson did, so we were taking the same measurements and extending on what he did as well.”

That may seem difficult to reconcile with the stated aims of the expedition but I suppose there’s no accounting for the wisdom of hindsight.

Perhaps the concluding words best belong to Chris Turney himself. The ABC’s Lateline programme 25 Nov 2013 included this exchange,

DIMITY MITSIS, Mawson’s great-granddaughter: “It’s kind of nice to bring it back to Mawson’s, you know main focus, which is science.”

MARGOT O’NEILL: “How would they feel about that?”

CHRIS TURNEY: “I think they’d be blown away”

-review by admin for,
4 Jan 2015