The world's least newsworthy continent is full of drama this week: A Russian ship carrying 52 members of the 2013-2014 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, including two members of the Guardian's news team, has been stuck in ice there since Christmas Day, and rescue efforts are underway to get the crew out safely. The Akademik Shokalskiy got stuck when a 70mph gust of wind blew up against the ship and snow circled it, trapping it in pack ice.
The expedition is led by climatologist Chris Turney of the University of New South Wales (his young son came along, too, which means his Christmas break story is going to beat everyone else's), and it's a centennial commemoration of Douglas Mawson's voyage. The crew, which also includes some paying members of the public, is repeating several of Mawson's experiments to see how much the landscape has changed in a century.
The first attempt to rescue the crew, by Chinese icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon), meant to reach the team Friday, didn't work out thanks to thick ice, and the helicopter on board was grounded by snow. A French ship stationed on the continent was thwarted due to weather. And an attempt by Australian icebreaking ship Aurora Australis was a bust: The ship got within 10 nautical miles of the entrapped vessel before having to turn back thanks to a blizzard yesterday.
“We've been so unfortunate – there was a massive breakout of very thick, old ice from the other side of the Mertz glacier, and it was swept to sea,” Turney said. “There's just no way through it. Many of the icebreakers just can't get through.”
The latest plan is an airlift via the Xue Long's helicopter, the last-ditch resort, and a highly complex one. The ship's members spent much of yesterday stomping down ice in preparation for landing, but the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said it was impossible to fly due to visibility — keeping the crew there until at least New Year's Day as they continue to do science and blog.
But regardless of their precarious position, the crew seems to be in good spirits, with hopes of a helicopter rescue keeping their spirits up on New Year's Eve. They have internet access, and the Guardian team is sending out video dispatches. Members also Skyped in to CNN for a casual interview with Anderson Cooper last night. Meanwhile, Guardian video producer Laurence Topham continues to zen-ly tweet cute animal photos while missing his girlfriend.
In other southern ice tundra excitement (usually a bit of a slow news place), a box of photographic negatives were found in pioneering explorer Robert Scott's hut (he died trying to make it to the Pole). The negatives, however, are actually from Ernest Shackleton's Ross Sea Party Expedition — Shackleton and his mates had kept cozy in Scott's hut while they watched their ship blow out to sea (they wound up fine).
Coincidentally, two years prior to Ross Sea Party debacle, Shackleton's ship on his first big explore, the Endurance, also got hella stuck in and eventually crushed by some ice. He and his full crew managed to escape with zero frozen cadavers.
Good thing we have helicopters for these guys. While they wait, their coverage of the expedition is here.
(Image: Laurence Topham/Twitter)