Winds, rain halt Antarctic ship rescue

January 1, 2014 by Madeleine Coorey in Earth / Earth Sciences
Passengers link arms and stamp out a helicopter landing site on the ice near the MV Akademik Shokalskiy (back R), still stuck in the ice off eastern Antarctica, as the ship waits for a possible helicopter rescue, December 31, 2013

Strong winds and rain Wednesday prevented the helicopter rescue of passengers on a Russian ship stuck in ice off Antarctica, Australian authorities said, as those onboard rang in the New Year with a sing-song from the deck.

The Akademik Shokalskiy, carrying 74 passengers and crew, has not moved since it became trapped about 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont d'Urville on December 24.

Efforts to free it using icebreaking ships have failed, with the Australian government's supply ship Aurora Australis admitting Tuesday it was unable to reach the marooned vessel, forcing the more complex helicopter rescue.

"Rescue situation in Antarctic remains unchanged," the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said in an update. "Helicopter unable to fly in current weather conditions. Raining in area and winds 20-30 knots."

Although AMSA had been hoping for a change in the weather later Wednesday, this had failed to occur by evening. However, authorities have said that decisions related to the rescue could be made at short notice.

Australian authorities, who are coordinating the rescue, plan to use the helicopter on board the Chinese-flagged icebreaker Xue Long to bring 52 passengers off the boat, leaving behind its 22 crew members.

They would then be taken by barge from the Xue Long to the Aurora Australis.

AMSA said the latest information was that the Chinese vessel was "moving and manoeuvring slowly around the ice", allaying fears that the Xue Long had itself become trapped.

Passengers on the stranded ship had been following in the footsteps of Australian Sir Douglas Mawson and his 1911-1914 expedition and they greeted the New Year with cheer, singing an anthem they wrote to ring in 2014.

Map showing the area in the Antarctic where a Russian research vessel carrying 74 people has been trapped in ice since December 24.

Giving a rousing rendition from the top deck of the Akademik Shokalskiy in footage posted on YouTube, they sang of "having fun doing science in Antarctica", only to lament in the chorus the "bloody great shame we are still stuck here".

One of the expedition's leaders Chris Turney, who said he welcomed the New Year with a glass of sparkling Australian wine, said composing the song had helped keep up spirits on the vessel.

"It was rather amazing actually," he told AFP via Skype from his remote location. "We set this tent up on top of the deck. It was very cosy. There was a lot of excitement.

"It was just what the team needed, letting their hair down for a bit and forgetting about their worries and concerns."

He said those onboard were keeping busy—either continuing to pack up the scientific equipment on the boat or taking part in seminars ranging from sewing to salsa dancing and reflecting the skills of those trapped on the vessel.

The team has been carrying out the same scientific experiments that Mawson's group conducted during the 1911-1914 expedition and in a letter this week admitted they were "stuck in our own experiment".

"We came to Antarctica to study how one of the biggest icebergs in the world (known as B09B) has altered the system by trapping ice," Turney and fellow members of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition wrote.

"We followed Sir Douglas Mawson's footsteps into Commonwealth Bay, and are now ourselves trapped by ice surrounding our ship."

Scientists from the University of New South Wales in Australia, Ziggy Marzinellia and Graeme Clark, preparing a suitable surface for a helicopter landing next to the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, stuck in the ice off East Antarctica, December 31, 2013

The group said while was disappearing in many places due to climate change, where they were now stranded ice was building up—a change which they said would impact the deep ocean circulation around the world.

"Underwater, forests of algae are dying as sea ice blocks the light reaching the seabed," they said, adding that the expanded sea ice had also affected penguin colonies.

"There are many unanswered questions. Who can say what effects the regional circulation changes may have on the ice sheet of the Antarctic plateau?" they said.

For now, the group can only await rescue from the ship which is well stocked and in no danger.

An adelie penguin near the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, still stuck in the ice in Antarctica, on December 31, 2013

The US Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star is headed to Antarctica as part of a planned mission to resupply McMurdo Station, but AMSA said it had not been tasked to help with the rescue.

"It's still a week away," AMSA spokeswoman Lisa Martin said.

© 2014 AFP

"Winds, rain halt Antarctic ship rescue" January 1, 2014