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Antarctic rescue: helicopter to evacuate passengers from trapped ship

by on December 31, 2013
 

Passengers aboard the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, the scientific research vessel that has been stuck in sea ice off the coast of Antarctica since Christmas Day, will be evacuated from the ship by helicopter as soon as the weather has cleared.

Icebreakers were trying to free the ship but the dense ice floes have proved too difficult to get through for both Chinese and Australian vessels that were sent to help.

Greg Mortimer, co-leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), gave notice of an evacuation to everyone on board the Shokalskiy at about 2pm local time on Tuesday. Expedition leaders then asked for volunteers among the AAE members to help prepare a landing area for the helicopter from the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long on an suitable ice floe next to the Russian-operated ship.

The Chinese vessel will wait for better weather and visibility before launching the evacuation. On Tuesday morning conditions were not yet suitable, with rain, heavy winds and clouds.

“We’re not going to be flying today, possibly not even tomorrow,” said Chris Turney, a climate scientist at the University of New South Wales and a leader of the AAE.

The Australian icebreaker, the Aurora Australis, arrived at the edge of the sea ice surrounding the Shokalskiy – about 20 nautical miles away – in the early hours of December 30, local time. It made several attempts to cut through the ice over the next day but was thwarted each time. On Tuesday morning its captain confirmed that the vessel would move to join the Xue Long, which itself unsuccessfully tried to break through the ice on Friday last week, to co-ordinate the air evacuation.

AAE members will be picked up on the ice next to the Shokalskiy and dropped off on a similar landing pad on the ice next to the Aurora Australis – the Chinese helicopter that will be used is too heavy to land on the Australian vessel’s deck. The Aurora Australis will then sail to the nearest Australian Antarctic base, Casey, before heading back to Hobart in Australia in late January.

Turney said the expedition team was disappointed that the Shokalskiy had been unable to break free from the ice with help from the icebreakers and get home under its own steam.

“We’ve been so unfortunate – there was a massive breakout of very thick, old ice from the other side of the Mertz glacier, and it was swept to sea,” he said. “There’s just no way through it. Many of the icebreakers just can’t get through.”

The Russian crew of the Shokalskiy will be given extra provisions and will remain on board after the AAE members have been evacuated. They will remain in position until the Shokalskiy can break out of the ice – either on its own, if the winds change and blow the ice apart, or when stronger icebreaking vessels can come to help.

The American icebreaker, the Polar Star, is about 10 days away and an even bigger Russian icebreaker, the Federov, is 28 days away. Either could be called upon to help the Shokalskiy if required.

Turney also responded to speculation from climate sceptics who have taken to social media sites in recent days to attack the scientific consensus on climate change by pointing out the apparent incongruity of there being so much sea ice around the Shokalskiy in the middle of the Antarctic summer.

“There’s a misconception here – we are not trapped in new ice that’s been created because its cold,” said Turney. “This is very old, thick ice that’s been re-mobilised. It was attached to another part of the continent and has broken out and, with the south-easterly winds we’ve had, has pushed it up against the coast … and pinned us in.”

The event is likely to be a result of long-term climate change that is happening in this part of the world. When the 120km-long iceberg, B09B, came through the area a few years ago it knocked off the tongue off the nearby Mertz glacier, which itself is 120km long. The iceberg grounded on the sea bed in Commonwealth Bay causing the sea around it to lock up with ice attached to the continent.

“There’s no Mertz glacier tongue to hold back the sea ice that broke out in the past weeks,” said Turney. “Because there’s ice in Commonwealth Bay, where we’re near, that old ice couldn’t go anywhere apart from here. It’s unfortunate circumstances.”

When it got stuck last week the Shokalskiy was about two weeks into its month-long journey from Bluff in New Zealand to Commonwealth Bay in East Antarctica, following in the footsteps of the great Antarctic explorer and scientist Douglas Mawson. He led the original AAE of 1911 and the modern incarnation intended to repeat his wildlife, ocean and weather observations in order to build a picture of how this part of the world had changed in the past 100 years.

The Shokalskiy has about 50 passengers, including scientists and paying members of the public, and 20 crew on board. It became stuck in the ice near Cape de la Motte in East Antarctica, about 1,500 nautical miles from Hobart in Tasmania, after strong blizzards hit the vessel on Christmas Eve.

By Alok Jha – Source: http://feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663879/s/355ad648/sc/39/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Cworld0C20A130Cdec0C310Cantarctic0Erescue0Ehelicopter0Eto0Eevacuate0Epassengers0Efrom0Etrapped0Eship/story01.htm