Airlift may evacuate most from ship stranded in frozen Antarctic seas

Posted at 8:06 AM, Dec 30, 2013
and last updated 2013-12-30 10:06:48-05

By Ralph Ellis

(CNN) — Fifty-six people on board a ship stuck in the frozen Antarctic may be airlifted out, Russia announced Monday.

A Chinese helicopter will evacuate 52 passengers and four crew members if weather permits, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

There are 74 people in total on board the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, a Russian expedition vessel.

An Australian icebreaker on Monday suspended efforts to reach the icebound research ship because of adverse weather. The Aurora Australis got within 10 nautical miles of the ship, but then turned back.

The Akademik Shokalskiy has not moved since sending out a distress signal on Christmas, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

“The area where the MV Akademik Shokalskiy is beset by ice is currently experiencing winds of up to 30 knots and snow showers,” the maritime authority said Monday. “These weather conditions have resulted in poor visibility and made it difficult and unsafe for the Aurora Australis to continue. … Further attempts may be made by the vessel in due course to undertake the rescue once weather conditions improve.”

The nearby Chinese icebreaker Xue Long carries a helicopter.

The people on the research ship are in regular contact with Australian authorities. They are reported to be in good spirits and have supplies for several weeks.

Second attempt by an icebreaker

The expedition to gauge the effects of climate change on the region began on November 27. The second and current leg of the trip started on December 8 and was scheduled to conclude with a return to New Zealand on January 4.

The vessel got stuck in the ice 15 days after setting out on the second leg.

According to Chris Turney, an Australian professor of climate change at the University of New South Wales, the ship was surrounded by ice up to nearly 10 feet (3 meters) thick. It was about 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont D’Urville, about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart, Tasmania.

On Christmas morning, the ship sent a satellite distress signal after conditions failed to clear.

The attempt by the Aurora Australis follows one by the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, which was just 6 nautical miles away from the trapped vessel when it couldn’t get any closer because of unusually thick ice.

The Snow Dragon went back to open water but remains in the area to provide support, said Andrea Hayward-Maher, a spokeswoman for the maritime authority. Li Mingjian, network engineer on the Snow Dragon, told CNN on Monday that the ship is now stuck in ice and waiting on weather to clear.

‘Magical winter wonderland’

Trapped passengers have been giving mostly positive updates via YouTube, greeting family members and telling everyone that they’re having a great time.

“It’s absolutely spectacular here; it’s like this magical winter wonderland,” a passenger declares in a video, as she waves her arms to point out the vast expanse of snow and a foggy sky.

The group continues to do research and find activities to stay occupied, but there is growing concern that blizzard conditions could worsen over the coming days, according to Turney.

“The vessel is fine, it’s safe and everyone on board is very well,” he said. “Morale is really high.”

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