Updated: 01/01/2014 11:08 | By Agence France-Presse

Wind and rain halt Antarctic ship rescue

Strong winds and rain prevented the helicopter rescue of passengers on a Russian ship stuck in ice off Antarctica Wednesday, Australian authorities said, as those onboard rang in the New Year with a sing-song from the deck.


Wind and rain halt Antarctic ship rescue

An adelie penguin near the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, still stuck in the ice in Antarctica, on December 31, 2013

The Akademik Shokalskiy, carrying 74 passengers and crew, has not moved since it became trapped about 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont d'Urville on December 24. 

Efforts to free it using icebreaking ships have failed, with the Australian government's supply ship Aurora Australis admitting Tuesday it was unable to reach the marooned vessel, forcing the more complex helicopter rescue.

"Rescue situation in Antarctic remains unchanged," the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said in an update on Wednesday. "Helicopter unable to fly in current weather conditions. Raining in area and winds 20-30 knots."

Australian authorities, who are coordinating the rescue, plan to use the helicopter on board the Chinese-flagged icebreaker Xue Long to bring 52 passengers off the boat, leaving behind its 22 crew members. 

They would then be taken by barge from the Xue Long to the Aurora Australis. 

AMSA said the latest information was that the Chinese vessel was "moving and manoeuvring slowly around the ice", allaying fears that the Xue Long had itself become trapped.

Passengers on the stranded ship had been following in the footsteps of Australian Sir Douglas Mawson and his 1911-1914 expedition and they greeted the New Year with cheer, singing an anthem they wrote to ring in 2014.

Giving a rousing rendition from the top deck of the Akademik Shokalskiy in footage posted on YouTube, they sang of "having fun doing science in Antarctica", only to lament in the chorus the "bloody great shame we are still stuck here".

One of the expedition's leaders Chris Turney, who said he welcomed the New Year with a glass of sparkling Australian wine, said composing the song had helped keep up spirits on the vessel.

"It was rather amazing actually," he told AFP via Skype from his remote location. "We set this tent up on top of the deck. It was very cosy. There was a lot of excitement.

"It was just what the team needed, letting their hair down for a bit and forgetting about their worries and concerns."

He said those onboard were keeping busy -- either continuing to pack up the scientific equipment on the boat or taking part in seminars ranging from sewing to salsa dancing and reflecting the skills of those trapped on the vessel.

The team on board has been carrying out the same scientific experiments that Mawson's group conducted during the 1911-1914 expedition and in a letter this week admitted they were "stuck in our own experiment".

"We came to Antarctica to study how one of the biggest icebergs in the world (known as B09B) has altered the system by trapping ice," Turney and fellow members of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition wrote.

"We followed Sir Douglas Mawson's footsteps into Commonwealth Bay, and are now ourselves trapped by ice surrounding our ship." 

The group said while sea ice was disappearing in many places due to climate change, where they were now stranded ice was building up -- a change which they said would impact the deep ocean circulation around the world.

"Underwater, forests of algae are dying as sea ice blocks the light reaching the seabed," they added. "Our underwater videos show an ecosystem in transition, which is likely to have consequences for larger animals."

The expanded sea ice has also altered the penguin colonies of Cape Denison, forcing parent penguins to travel more than three times the normal distance to reach the ocean to find food to feed their chicks, they said.

"There are many unanswered questions. Who can say what effects the regional circulation changes may have on the ice sheet of the Antarctic plateau?" they said. 

"This is a unique expedition in many ways. In the true spirit of Mawson, we are a group of scientists from different disciplines who joined together to tackle these questions."

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