US icebreaker to rescue Chinese and Russian ships in Antarctica

Polar Star en route to Russian and Chinese vessels trapped in Antarctica

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 10:28am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 10:50am

A US icebreaker was dispatched yesterday to assist an icebound Russian research ship and Chinese vessel trapped during a rescue bid in Antarctica.

The 122-metre cutter, the Polar Star, is responding to a request from Australia, Russia and China to assist the ships because "there is sufficient concern that the vessels may not be able to free themselves from the ice", the US Coast Guard said. It is expected to take seven days to reach Commonwealth Bay, where the two ships are trapped.

The Russian research ship Akademik Shokalskiy has been trapped there since Christmas Eve, while the Chinese ship which came to its rescue, Xue Long or Snow Dragon, reported on Friday it too had become stuck nearby, after a dramatic helicopter rescue of the Shokalskiy's 52 passengers the previous day.

The Chinese leadership has vowed "all-out efforts" to assist the ship, which is surrounded by ice up to four metres thick and is stuck 21 kilometres from open water, according to Xinhua. It has reporters on board.

The People's Daily said the Chinese icebreaker had already cleared out a one kilometre long runway and might attempt to free itself from the ice today, if weather conditions permit.

There were around seven icebergs floating around the Chinese vessel, the newspaper quoted the onboard oceanic scientist Jiao Yutian as saying.

The Chinese crew was monitoring the icebergs round the clock to avoid any collision. A total of 101 people, including crew members, scientists and journalists, are on board.

The Xue Long has ample food and fuel and is waiting for a change in the weather, as a tropical cyclone is likely to pass by today and tomorrow, according to the newspaper.

"The weather changes rapidly in the South Pole. Monday is a chance for Xue Long to break out, but the [time] window of escape could close very soon and we must get very well prepared in advance," Qu Tanzhou, head of the Antarctic Office under the State Oceanic Administration, was quoted as saying.

The Chinese vessel is over 160 meters long, and its size also made escape more difficult, he said.

Xinhua said the State Oceanic Administration had set up a task force to lead and co-ordinate the new rescue mission.

The Polar Star is capable of continuously breaking ice up to 1.8 metres thick while travelling at three knots, and can break ice more than six metres thick by ramming.

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press

Watch: Chinese helicopter rescues Russian ship passengers in Antartica