Ice-bound in Antarctica

by Les

My beautiful picture

As I write this, the Akademik Shokalskiy sits trapped in heavy pack ice, near the edge of the pack-ice north of Terre Adelie, where it has been since before Christmas. Just outside the pack are the Xue Long and the Aurora Australis.According to news reports, all three ships are icebreakers. However, this is not strictly correct. They would all be better described as “multi-purpose research and resupply ships” (the description of Aurora Australis in Wikipedia).

I know something about this kind of ship being trapped in pack ice: I was a member of the 1970 wintering party at Casey, an Australian Antarctic station nearly 1000 miles west of the current news.

Our physical contact with the outside world in those days was a single annual visit from the Thala Dan, a Danish ship of the same general design as the three ships currently in the news (though smaller), shown in the picture above. We were dropped off at Casey in January 1970, and were due to be picked up a year later.

However, a day before the planned arrival of the Thala Dan wwe were told by radio that the ship was beset in pack ice about thirty miles from  Casey. There it stayed for nearly a month, until a change in wind opened the pack and the little red ship anchored off Casey a few hours later.

Meanwhile, the ANARE headquarters in Melbourne was frantically trying to rearrange the summer sailing schedule for the Thala, and charter a Russian icebreaker to help, while at Casey we were working on contingency plans to spend another year in isolation. We had plenty of food for another year, and enough fuel to keep the station running for an extra year, though curtailing field work might have been needed. Of course, there were a few shortages. The local brewery, producer of  Penguin Lager, was running short of supplies, and impounded all the honey in anticipation of having to change from beer to mead.

This kind of problem is historically quite common in polar operations. Perhaps the most striking example occurred with the Fox expedition in search of the missing polar explorer Sir John Franklin. The Fox, an auxiliary steam yacht owned by Lady Franklin and commanded by Leopold M’Clintock, left Godhavn on Disko in Greenland in early August, 1857, and reached Melville Bay on August 12. Within a few days the ship was having trouble penetrating the pack, and by mid-September it was clear they were going to spend the winter beset.

The Fox spent 242 days trapped in the pack. When it broke free near the end of April, 1858, M’Clintock sailed back to Greenland. There he refueled by mining coal from the outcrop on the north side of Disko, resupplied and picked up mail from Godhavn and Holsteinsborg, then headed north again into the pack. M’Clintock was destined to spend a second winter beset in pack ice, but this time it was only about 160 days.

So this kind of problem is only to be expected in polar operations. The news flurry about the current situation is fed by a civilization which demands on-time operations at all times. We need this today to mesh with a just-in-time mentality having no Plan B in case of the unexpected. In my mind, we have lost something. In 1970 we knew we were isolated for a year, and we knew we had no possibility of help if anything went wrong.

In the current situation, the worst case scenario is that the Akademik Shokalskiy will be crushed in the pack ice (though I very much doubt that will happen) and those on board evacuated to the Aurora Australis by helicopter. Most likely, winds will change, and the ship will be freed and continue on its voyage.


According to CNN within the last few hours (it’s January 7, 2014 early afternoon in Houston) the  Akademik Shokalskiy and the Xue Long, both of which were trapped by the pack ice, have been freed by a change in wind direction. The Chinese vessel is already in open water, while the  Akademik Shokalskiy is working through loose pack towards open water, after just over two weeks trapped in the ice.

What did I say?