Scientists Trapped In Antarctic Ice

Alok Jha on deck on the ShokalskiyScientists aboard the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, a research vessel stuck in ice a few miles off the Antarctic coast, have used the temporary pause in their month-long expedition to carry out extra research projects into the state of ice and water around the frozen continent.

The Shokalskiy became trapped in pack ice just over two weeks into its month-long journey, from Bluff in New Zealand to Commonwealth Bay in east Antarctica. It is now about 1,500 nautical miles from Hobart, awaiting the arrival of the icebreaker ship the Xue Long to free it from heavy pack ice. The 166m-long Chinese vessel, whose name translates as “Snow Dragon”, is due to reach the Shokalskiy on Friday morning.

Reports of nearby icebergs threatening the vessel are untrue – the two closest are a mile away and remain stationary among the ice floes – and the leaders of the expedition are liaising closely with maritime authorities to keep them abreast of the situation.

Climate scientist Chris Turney of the University of New South Wales, who is leading the expedition, said: “The situation remains stable and everyone is keeping well. For anyone concerned at home, please be assured there’s no threat to the vessel.

“We’re making the best possible use of our unscheduled stop to take extra measurements in the area and build on our scientific work programme.”

Scientists on board have deployed probes, called xCTDs, over the stern of the ship in the past day, which measure properties of the ocean as they fall through the water column.

“Our current location near the Mertz glacier is a major driver of the world’s ocean circulation system,” Turney said.

“We’re undertaking further measurements of the saltiness and temperature of the waters below us to see how much change there has been over the past century – since Douglas Mawson’s time, a century ago.”

He added: “Alongside this, there is a trend to more extensive sea ice around east Antarctica and this looks set to continue.

“What impact this has on the local biology is currently uncertain and we are undertaking bird counts and analysing the algae colonising the newly formed ice to better understand the impact of expanding sea ice. If conditions clear tomorrow, we hope to core the ocean bed to obtain sediments for reconstructing ocean circulation changes in the past.”

Biologists have been listening and recording in the water for the presence of different species of seals, to measure population and age distribution.

“We certainly didn’t plan this pause and, given the choice, we’d far rather be in open sea,” Turney said. “But it has given us a rare opportunity to build the science outputs of the expedition.”

On board the Shokalskiy are 48 passengers – half of them scientists, the other half paying members of the public who are helping in the experiments – and 20 crew members. They are following in the footsteps of the great Antarctic explorer and scientist Douglas Mawson, leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911.

The ship has been sailing through the Southern Ocean since December 8, repeating and extending many of Mawson’s wildlife and weather observations to build a picture of how this part of the world had changed in the past 100 years.

The expedition reached the fast ice off Commonwealth Bay, carrying out measurements of the Southern Ocean along the way, on Tuesday last week. A small team of scientists and conservationists also ventured to Mawson’s Huts at Cape Denison on Thursday last week, 65km across the ice from where the ship was anchored.

The expedition was heading east on Tuesday, to spend a day at the Mertz glacier, when it became trapped among thick ice floes near Stillwell Island, off Cape de la Motte.

As well as the Xue Long, two other icebreakers are en route to the Shokalskiy: the French ship Astrolabe and the Australian vessel Aurora Australis.

When the ship is freed, expected by the weekend, this modern incarnation of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition will continue on to the Southern Ocean and will return to Bluff via a stop on Macquarie Island to undertake a short programme of wildlife, oceanography and climate research.


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