Stuck in Southern Midsummer Ice: Second Icebreaker Turns Back

By Patrick Goodenough | December 30, 2013 | 1:32 AM EST

The Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis, on a mission to rescue a Russian-flagged expedition vessel trapped in Antarctic sea ice, turned back on Monday due to bad weather and difficulties in proceeding through the packed ice. (Photo: Australian Antarctic Division, File)

( – For the second time in two days, an icebreaker inching its way towards an expedition ship trapped in Antarctic ice – in the southern hemisphere midsummer – was forced to suspend its rescue mission on Monday.

The Aurora Australis, an Australian icebreaker, turned back towards open water, due to “adverse weather conditions” including snow showers and winds of up to 30 knots, the Australian Marine Safety Authority (AMSA) reported. The conditions and poor visibility made it difficult and unsafe to proceed.

It said that before turning back the icebreaker had got to within 10 nautical miles of the Akademik Shokalskiy, a Russian-flagged vessel that has been trapped in sea ice in the Commonwealth Bay region of the eastern Antarctic since Christmas Day.

The Aurora had then moved back to about 18 miles east of the Russian vessel.

“Further attempts may be made by the vessel in due course to undertake the rescue once weather conditions improve,” added AMSA, whose rescue coordination center is the responsible search and rescue authority for the area.

Aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy are 74 crew and passengers, including scientists, students and journalists. The Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) is retracing the original AAE of 1911-1914, led by the explorer Douglas Mawson, who barely made it back alive.

On Saturday, AMSA announced that a Chinese icebreaker, the Xue Long (Snow Dragon) had turned back, just six nautical miles away from Akademik Shokalskiy, unable to get any closer to its stranded target.

The Chinese ship remains in the area, and a helicopter that it has onboard may be used to evacuate the passengers from the expedition ship – but only when the weather improves.

“At this time, it is also unsafe to attempt to launch the helicopter from the Chinese vessel,” AMSA said Monday. Meanwhile, it said, “the 74 people on board remain safe and well with supplies for several weeks.”

The AAE is led by Chris Turney. a climate scientist from the University of New South Wales in Australia. Exploring the impact of climate change on the vast continent and its seal and bird populations is a major element of the expedition.

The AAE’s blog says that the Australasian sector of the Antarctic is dominated by the largest of three ice sheets containing “enough freshwater to raise the world’s sea level by some 52 meters [or 170 feet].”

“Until recently it was thought this ice sheet was stable, sitting on the continental crust above today’s sea level,” it says. “However there is an increasing body of evidence, including by the AAE members, that have identified parts of the East Antarctic which are highly susceptible to melting and collapse from ocean warming.”

An Australian journalist onboard the Aurora Australis, Nicky Phillips, filed a report Monday for her newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald, quoting the icebreaker’s captain as attributing the decision to turn away from the stranded ship to fog, strong winds, and difficulties in proceeding through the consolidated ice.

“The ice became too thick for us to penetrate,” said Captain Murray Doyle. “Some of the floes are up to two meters of ice with a meter of snow on top and very compact. There was just nowhere for us to go.”

Just weeks ago the Aurora Australis was itself held up by “thick pack-ice conditions” in the Southern Ocean. After delivering summer season personnel to Australia’s Davis Antarctic station about 2,250 nautical miles south-west of the Australian mainland, it was due to arrive back in on Nov. 16 but only made it back on Dec. 7, according to an AMSA report at the time.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow