© Andrew Peacock/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
An image from one of the passengers of the Akademik Shokalskiy shows the Russian research ship icebound off Antarctica.
Early this morning, I received an e-mail message from one of many polar scientists whose important and costly field research in Antarctica has been seriously disrupted by the diversion of icebreakers to try to evacuate the journalists, tourists, crew and scientists on an unessential "expedition" aboard a chartered Russian ship.

You can read the note - from Joe McConnell, an American ice-sheet researcher I met in 2004 in Greenland - after a summary of the situation.

Of course the evacuation of the trapped ship, which will require helicopters given the impassible nature of the thick sea ice in the area, is vital. But when you consider the cost and risk attending the operation, and the impact on other science, this raises questions about the advisability of this voyage in the first place.

If you follow the discussion around #SpiritOfMawson - the Twitter hashtag for the project - you'll also note how this misadventure has energized climate change contrarians, offering a distraction from serious research on the impact of climate change on Antarctica.

The Spirit of Mawson expedition - a mashup of adventure travel, media event and science - was billed this way by organizers:
The Australasian Antarctic Expedition will truly meld science and adventure, repeating century old measurements to discover and communicate the changes taking place in this remote and pristine environment.
On the website, the planners included a long justification of the trip on the basis of the science that would be undertaken. The prime goal was a fresh assessment of ice, ocean and ecological conditions on the stretch of Antarctic coast south of Australia and New Zealand a century after an arduous expedition led by Sir Douglas Mawson did the same. In 2012, Smithsonian ran a great piece on that effort, "The Most Terrible Polar Exploration Ever: Douglas Mawson's Antarctic Journey."

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.

This was on display in a New Year's Eve singalong posted on YouTube, but more so in a Christmas Day comment by the expedition's marine ecologist Tracy Rogers, quoted by the BBC:
It's fantastic - I love it when the ice wins and we don't," said expedition marine ecologist Tracy Rogers. "It reminds you that as humans, we don't control everything and that the natural world - it's the winner here. We've got several penguins watching us, thinking 'what the hell are you doing stuck in our ice?'. The sky is a beautiful grey - it looks like it wants to have a bit of a snow. It's the perfect Christmas, really.
Consider that attitude in the context of the note from Joe McConnell (with some tiny edits of email shorthand and contextual links):
Greetings from Casey Station on the East Antarctic coast. I've just returned from the deep field site at Aurora Basin where the Australians are drilling a new 400-meter ice core which we will analyze in my lab in Reno.

I'm writing with regards to the rescue effort for that tourist ship stuck in the ice near Commonwealth Bay and the enormous impact of the rescue effort on Antarctic science programs. The Australian ice breaker Aurora Australis was here at Casey in the process of unloading the coming year's supplies for the station, as well as a number of researchers and their science gear for this summer's activities, when the emergency response request was issued. The Australians shut down the unloading very quickly and left within a few hours after the request arrived but only about a third of the resupply was completed and a lot of that science gear was still on board. Before they left they at least were able to get the passengers including six Aurora Basin researchers off the ship. Otherwise I'd still be at Aurora Basin and would have had to stay to the end of January since my field replacement was in that group.

The short- and long-term impacts on the Australian science program are pronounced as you can imagine and I understand it is the same for both the Chinese and French programs since their icebreakers were diverted, too. I'll be sitting down to New Year's Eve dinner in a few minutes with a number of Australian researchers including the director of the Australian Antarctic Division Tony Fleming - many of these guys can't complete the research they've been planning for years because some or all of their science gear still is on the Aurora.
I've done my share of polar reporting - all in the Arctic. I've even posted video of singing on sea ice. But I was always reporting on trips in which every step was assessed for safety and significance by the agency paying for the research, the National Science Foundation.

I'm sure the organizers of the Spirit of Mawson trip were as careful as they could be, but was the trip important enough to justify the cost that is now mounting? I doubt it.

I encourage you to read this opinion piece by the University of Hartford historian Michael Robinson on the National Geographic website for more: "Ship Stuck in Antarctica Raises Questions About Worth of Reenacting Expeditions."

Click here for past coverage of Antarctic tourism troubles.