Blizzard conditions, thick ice further delay rescue of ship stranded near Antarctica


The latest attempt to rescue the crew and passengers of a Russian ship trapped in Antarctic ice had be aborted today, after a blizzard reduced visibility down to dangerous levels and threatened to turn rescuers into potential rescuees.

Three icebreaker ships have made attempts to reach the Akademik Shokalskiy so far, after it became stuck in thick Antarctic sea ice on December 24th. The French ship L'Astrolabe and the Chinese vessel Snow Dragon made the first attempts, but were both forced to break off their efforts on Saturday, when the ice became too thick. A third, the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis, which apparently had the best chances of reaching the stranded ship, was expected to arrive on Sunday. However, they were forced to turn back to open waters after the weather took a turn that threatened to trap them as well.

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"The ice became too thick for us to penetrate," said Murray Doyle, the captain of the Aurora Australis, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. "Some of the floes are up to two metres of ice with a metre of snow on top and very compact. There was just nowhere for us to go."

The Aurora, which was launched in 1989, is capable of breaking up ice over 1.2 metres thick, or possibly up to two metres thick with a 'big push' according to the SMH. However, the ice and snow built up around the Akademik Shokalskiy is just too much for it at the moment, and Captain Doyle also expressed concerns that the strong winds may blow sea ice across the 'laneway' they opened behind them, closing off their escape route.

Reporters on board the ship recorded this video of its attempt to reach the stranded Akademik Shokalskiy:

According to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), the organization coordinating the rescue attempts, the Aurora made it to within 10 nautical miles of the Akademik Shokalskiy before they had to abort the attempt, and the Russian Foreign Ministry says that the Snow Dragon managed to come within 6.7 nautical miles from the stranded ship before they were forced back. A helicopter on board the Chinese ship was set to take off, to pick up all 52 passengers as well as 4 crew members, however the blizzard conditions have forced them to abandon that plan as well.

"We can't fly a helicopter in these conditions either. There is essentially nothing we can do at this point of time," said Lisa Martin, a spokesperson for the AMSA, according to CBC News.

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The Akademik Shokalskiy has been on an Antarctic expedition for just over a month now, to mark the 100 year anniversary of a similar scientific expedition led by Australian geologist Douglas Mawson. Apparently, the troubles being encountered by the passengers and crew right now are a fitting tribute to Mawson's journey, as he and his colleagues went through some similar trials. In fact, the centennial of the expedition would have been celebrated much earlier this year, if Mawson and six members of his team hadn't been stranded and forced to stay through the southern winter until December 1913.

Fortunately for the passengers and crew of the Akademik Shokalskiy, although they'll likely be spending New Years still trapped in the ice, they won't need to spend months waiting to leave, like Mawson did. Also, despite their situation, they are apparently well-stocked and still in good spirits. They're keeping up their research while stuck, and they plan to continue the expedition once conditions become more favourable and the rescuers are able to free them.

(Photo courtesy: Reuters)

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