Passengers aboard a ship, marooned in Antarctic ice, are currently awaiting rescue endeavors. The ice now appears to be fracturing, raising the possibility that a powerful Australian icebreaker might gain access to the stranded ship and perform a successful rescue operation.
The MV Akademik Shokalskiy originally became trapped in thick ice on Tuesday, Dec. 24, some 100 nautical miles from Dumont d’Urville – a French scientific station, situated in the Antarctic, and named after explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville. The winds of an intense blizzard shifted sea ice around the vessel, freezing it firmly in position. Fortunately, the ship possesses supplies of food that will last the crew – comprising of 74 scientists, tourists and crew of Australian and Russian nationality – several weeks.
The ship departed New Zealand on Nov. 28, as part of a privately funded expedition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of an Antarctic venture, pioneered by an Australian explorer, called Douglas Mawson. The second leg of the expedition commenced on Dec. 8 and was originally slated to conclude on Jan. 4. Once the passengers of the ship became stranded among the thick ice, a satellite distress signal was dispatched on Christmas morning.
Thus far, two other icebreaking ships have attempted to reach the vessel, with no success. On Saturday, the Snow Dragon (a.k.a. Xue Long) came within a distance of seven miles from the Russian ship, the Akademik Shokalskiy; according to Alvin Stone, an expedition spokesperson, the rescue effort was cancelled due to thick ice.
On Sunday, the ice surrounding the Akademik Shokalskiy began to crack, improving the opportunity of a successful rescue effort. The Australian icebreaker, the Aurora Australis, is attempting to reach the immobilized ship. Estimates issued by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) indicate the Aurora Australis will break through in the early morning, local time.
Meanwhile, the Snow Dragon is on standby near the edge of the ice, and is overseeing the trapped vessel from a distance. The Snow Dragon is reported to house a helicopter on board that could help with future rescue efforts and assist with evacuation.
It is hoped the Aurora Australis will be capable of breaking further through the frozen ice and, in turn, will reach the Akademik Shokalskiy. In the event of a third failure, however, the passengers will have to prepare for an aerial transfer using the Snow Dragon’s helicopter. The helicopter would need to land on a firm patch of ice, adjacent the Akademik Shokalskiy, and ferry the passengers to nearby ships, before transferring them to an Australian Antarctic base.
Speaking to CNN, Andrea Hayward-Maher, an AMSA spokesperson, reflected on the possibility of the passengers needing to be rescued by helicopter, since the Aurora Australis can only break through floe of about 1.35 meters in thickness:
“The aerial transfer of passengers on board may be a possibility… Some reports say that the ice is at least 2 meters deep. It’s a possibility that the Aurora Australis might not be able to break through that type of ice.”
The expedition originally set out to investigate the effects of climate change on the region. It is still expected that the ship will make its scheduled return on Jan. 4, 2014.
By James Fenner