Antarctic rescue disrupting research

HALTED ATTEMPT::The rescue mission has forced Chinese scientists to cancel their scientific program, while other research campaigns have also been impacted


Sun, Jan 05, 2014 - Page 4

A Chinese icebreaker that went to the aid of a Russian ship stuck in heavy floes in Antarctica has now become trapped by ice, officials said yesterday, amid anger over the impact of the rescue on the research. The Xue Long, which on Thursday used its helicopter to ferry dozens of passengers on the stranded Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy to the safety of an Australian vessel, has been unable to free itself.

“Xue Long has confirmed to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority it is beset by ice,” the authority said in a statement.

The Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, came tantalizingly close to cutting through heavy ice to reach the Shokalskiy a week ago, but had to abandon its attempt once it realized it could not break through. It has hardly moved in recent days.

Xinhua news agency, which has reporters on board the Xue Long, said the ship’s passage had been blocked since Friday by a drifting, 1km-long iceberg.

Captain Wang Jianzhong (王建忠) said the constantly changing position of the massive iceberg, which sometimes came as close as 1.2 nautical miles (2.2km) to the ship and ice floes, was making conditions complex, Xinhua reported.

The Chinese vessel will only attempt to free itself after this huge block of ice moves away, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) urging the ship’s team to stay calm as they wait for the best time to act.

Australian authorities said the master of the Chinese ship had confirmed that the vessel was safe, was not in immediate distress and did not require assistance. The ship has food supplies for several weeks.

The Shokalskiy remains stuck in ice 100 nautical miles from the French Antarctic base of Dumont d’Urville with 22 crew on board. The 22 scientists, 26 paying passengers and four journalists on board the Shokalskiy who were helicoptered off the ship are now on the Aurora Australis, which had been standing by to help the Xue Long.

However, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) yesterday released the Aurora Australis to continue its journey to Australia’s Antarctic base Casey, where it is due to deliver supplies before heading to the Australian city of Hobart.

Australian authorities have said that any inquiry into how the Shokalskiy came to be stranded would have to be conducted by Russian authorities but have acknowledged that the incident could impact guidelines for polar expeditions.

The mission, which also initially involved the French ship Astrolabe, has also impacted some Antarctic research programs, French Polar Institute director Yves Frenot said.

The rescue mission forced French scientists to scrap a two-week oceanographic campaign this month using the Astrolabe.

“But we are relatively lucky. The Chinese have had to cancel all their scientific program, and my counterpart in Australia is spitting tacks with anger, because their entire summer has been wiped out,” he said.

The Aurora was forced to suspend its resupply of the Australian base to aid the Shokalskiy, but authorities said it was not yet known what impact the incident would have on scientific programs.

“The diversion will inevitably squeeze an already tight season,” Australian Antarctic Division acting director Jason Mundy said on Friday, adding that officials were working hard to minimize the impact. The trip on the Shokalskiy was aimed at emulating a 1911-1914 expedition by the Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, Frenot said adding that “this kind of commemorative expedition has no interest from a scientific point of view.”

The scientists on board, assisted by the passengers, were repeating century-old measurements to discover environmental changes taking place in the southern region.