Antarctic Rescue Thwarted by Atrocious Weather

Antarctic rescue thwarted by atrocious weather airlift imminent The latest attempts to rescue passengers, aboard a ship marooned in thick Antarctic ice, have been thwarted by atrocious weather conditions. An Australian icebreaker was dispatched to gain access to the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which originally became trapped on Tuesday, Dec. 24, some 100 nautical miles from Dumont D’Urville – a French scientific station on Petrel Island in the Antarctic.

Aurora Australis Fails to Unleash Stranded Shokalskiy

The Australian icebreaker, Aurora Australis, is the third ship that was dispatched to free the crew of the Akademik Shokalskiy. The Aurora Australis made it to within 10 nautical miles of the immobilized vessel, before the rescue attempt was cancelled as a result of bad weather conditions; winds that reached speeds of 30 knots compounded the expedition, alongside flurries of snow showers. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) recently expounded upon the disruptive weather conditions, during a recent press release:

“These weather conditions have resulted in poor visibility and made it difficult and unsafe for the Aurora Australis to continue today’s attempt to assist the MV Akademik Shokalskiy. Further attempts may be made by the vessel in due course to undertake the rescue once weather conditions improve.”

Australian geologist and explorer Douglas Mawson
Australian geologist and Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson.

The Akademik Shokalskiy was dispatched on its latest venture on Nov. 28, as a part of a privately funded expedition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of an Antarctic exploration mission, led by explorer Douglas Mawson – an Australian geologist and academic. On Dec. 8, the second part of the expedition – comprising 74 scientists, tourists and crew from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition – commenced with the principal goal to study the effects of climate change in the East Antarctica. As part of a month-long voyage, the multidisciplinary team aimed to retrace the steps of Mawson and perform some of the same studies. The vessel first became trapped on Christmas Eve when intense winds pushed sea ice around the ship, subsequently freezing it in position near Cape de la Motte. The team waited until Christmas morning to see if the grueling weather conditions showed any signs of improvement; with no evident change, a distress signal was sent, which was picked up by Britain’s Falmouth Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, via satellite. The signal was then passed on to RCC Australia, prompting the latest slew of rescue efforts. Thus far, however, the crew remains perfectly safe and food supplies are plentiful. In total, three icebreaking ships have been sent, in a bid to free the Akademik Shokalskiy. On Dec. 28, the Snow Dragon (a.k.a. Xue Long) made it to within seven miles of the stranded Russian ship, before being thwarted by the thick ice. The Chinese icebreaker was then placed on standby near the edge of the ice. A French icebreaker, entitled the Astrolabe, was the second rescue vessel sent to offer assistance; it rapidly became clear the icebreaker would get no further than its Chinese equivalent and, therefore, AMSA scrapped the mission. The French and Chinese ships are reported to be capable of breaking ice of one meter thickness. It was conjectured the Aurora Australis had a better opportunity to reach the Akademik Shokalskiy, since it can push through floe of approximately 1.35 meters thick. In addition, the ice was also beginning to crack on Sunday, raising hopes of a more successful rescue effort. Ultimately, the Australian icebreaker’s endeavors to reach the crew of the Akademik Shokalskiy were scuttled, with the ice now believed to be too thick to penetrate.

Airlift Planned Using Snow Dragon’s Helicopter

The idle Snow Dragon vessel houses a helicopter on board. According to Andrea Hayward-Maher, a spokesperson for the maritime authority, the helicopter could be used for evacuation of the crew. Indeed, Russia announced on Monday that 56 people from the Akademik Shokalskiy – including 52 passengers and four crew members – would be airlifted to safety. The Russian Foreign Ministry indicates that the contingency of an aerial transfer would be dependent upon amenable weather conditions:

“A decision has been reached to evacuate 52 passengers and four crew members by helicopter from China’s Xue Long (Snow Dragon) ship, should the weather allow.”

This is something that was recently reiterated by research team leader Chris Turney, who works as a climate change professor at Australia’s University of New South Wales. Speaking to Today, via a Skype call, Turney explained that the evacuation was dependent upon the weather:

“The big thing is the weather… There’s low visibility right now.”

If a helicopter was deployed to airlift the crew to safety, it is expected that each member would be taken to Aurora Australis. Expedition co-leader Greg Mortimer explained the situation in a recent interview, just prior to the latest failed rescue effort:

“The first line of action is the hope that Aurora Australis is able to cut us free. If that doesn’t happen, we are faced with the prospect of having to evacuate the vessel. Given that the ice situation has changed so dramatically… the vessel could stay here for some time.”

In spite of their current predicament, the crew remains upbeat and are continuing their research. Many members of the expedition team are measuring the temperature and salinity through cracks within the surrounding ice, whilst others are keeping occupied with books and movies. By James Fenner Sources: Guardian Liberty Voice The New York Times CNN USA Today Today News

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