US icebreaker heads to Antarctic

January 06, 2014 - 4:59:55 am

A file picture of Polar Star, the US Coast Guard icebreaker, completing ice drills in the Arctic. The US is sending the Polar Star to help free Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy and Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon gripped by Antarctic ice, the Coast Guard said.

SYDNEY: A US icebreaker was dispatched yesterday to assist an icebound Russian research ship and Chinese vessel trapped during a rescue bid in Antarctica, as the leader of a group airlifted to safety rejected criticism of their expedition.

The US Coast Guard’s Polar Star accepted an Australian request to go to the aid of the marooned Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy which has been beset by ice since December 24.

It will also aid the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long which was involved in a dramatic helicopter rescue of the Shokalskiy’s 52 passengers on Thursday.

The Xue Long has become trapped itself, with China vowing “all-out efforts” to assist the ship which is surrounded by ice of up to four metres thick and is stuck 21 kilometres from open water, according to state news agency Xinhua which has reporters on board.

China’s Antarctic division director Qu Tanzhou said the Xue Long may attempt to chop itself free of the ice today if conditions permit, with a massive iceberg expected to move out of its path.    

“Weather forecasts and ice monitoring show favourable weather conditions may appear today, which may bring winds to blow the ice floe away, providing a good opportunity for Xue Long to sail out,” Qu told the China Daily.

If that was not possible and other rescue plans failed, leaving the ship stranded “for a very long time, which is very rare indeed, then we’ll have to evacuate the people onboard and leave the vessel there,” he added. 

Xue Long’s mission — China’s 30th to the Antarctic continent — which included construction of a new research base, site inspection for another and a range of scientific work, will now have to be revised, Qu said.

The Polar Star, which left the US in early December to clear a channel for ships resupplying McMurdo Station research base, left Sydney yesterday with provisions, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

The 122-metre ship is capable of continuously breaking ice up to 1.8 metres (six feet) thick while travelling at three knots, and can break ice more than six metres thick by ramming. It is expected to take seven days to reach Commonwealth Bay where the two ships are trapped, 100 nautical miles from the French Antarctic base of Dumont d’Urville.

The stranding of the Shokalskiy, which was carrying 22 scientists, 26 paying passengers and four journalists as well as 22 crew who remain on board, has sparked criticism in some quarters.

As well as the Xue Long and Polar Star two other icebreakers, Australia’s Aurora Australis and France’s Astrolabe, were diverted from their Antarctic missions to assist the Shokalskiy. 

Yves Frenot, director of the French Polar Institute said the rescue saga had forced French scientists to scrap a two-week oceanographic campaign using the Astrolabe.

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

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

Chris Turney, leader of the Shokalskiy’s expedition which repeated century-old measurements to explore environmental changes as it retraced a 1911-14 voyage of the Antarctic, hit back at Frenot’s criticism. “Yves was fully aware of the expedition and there was even an exchange of emails around it in September. At no time did Yves indicate any problems with the science of the expedition or the expedition itself,” Turney said.

The Auora Australis is now en route to Australia’s Casey Antarctic base to complete a resupply run, from where it will return to Hobart, with Turney and the Shokalskiy’s other passengers on board, later this month. 

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