For 74 tourists, scientists, researchers and crew members aboard the Russian ice-strenghtened ship Akademik Shokalskiy, it has been a White Christmas. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. It is the middle of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, but Mother Nature has said otherwise.
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It is ironic that this ship designed for arctic and antarctic exploration and scientific study is in Antarctica to study the effects of climate change or global warming and melting sea ice. The ship’s expedition’s leader is, Chris Turney, a professor of climate change from the University of New South Wales. He was quoted as saying, “We are stuck in our own experiment…Sea ice is disappearing due to climate change, but here ice is building up.”
It is currently so cold in Antarctica, that the sea ice is at record thickness and the sea is actually freezing in areas it usually doesn’t freeze. For sea water to freeze, the temperature of the water must drop to 28 degrees F. It was reported today it is as much as 13 feet thick, up from 10 feet thick reported just a few days ago.
No major news outlet has reported this story with the fact that the stuck ship was on a climate change research mission except for ABC’s Good Morning America and Fox News.
Several attempts to rescue the stranded Soviet vessel have failed as the ice was just too thick for the Chinese, Australian and French icebreakers to break through. The largest of the three icebreakers is the Chinese Sea Dragon with a length of nearly 550 feet. However. the smaller Aurora Australis at 311 feet is a more capable icebreaker and is called a super icebreaker, but it still is only able to break through ice only four feet thick at 2.5 knots. The larger Sea Dragon’s ice penetration is three feet seven inches at 2 knots. A large Soviet icebreaker in Valdivostok with 36,000 horsepower can only penetrate ice six feet thick at about 3 knots as is the capability of the United States super ice breaker, the 400-foot-long Polar Star, which boasts about 75,000 horsepower combined from its diesel and gas turbine engines. But it can break ice 21 feet thick in certain situations.
Here is the problem for the Akademik Shokalskiy, it is surrounded by ice 10 to 13 feet thick and it is sitting in blizzard conditions. The closest the Sea Dragon could get was about seven miles and the later arriving Aurora Australis could only get within 11 miles. The ice is thickening. The 214- foot, 7,000 hp French ice breaker, Astrolabe, was only working in support of the Sea Dragon.
It has been reported today that the Australian government has requested the United States Coast Guard’s help and the Polar Star (which was on its way to McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea) left Sydney Dec. 3 and should arrive on scene about Jan. 12, hopefully, to save everyone’s bacon, which now include the Chinese Sea Dragon icebreaker which is also stuck in the ice.
Ironically, this sea ice condition is nothing new as about a month ago, heavy sea ice delayed the Aurora Australis from its return to its home base in Hobart during a trip to Antarctica. The condition of extra heavy sea ice was known to everyone operating in the area.
Helicopters aboard the icebreakers finally were able on Jan. 2 to evacuate all of the passengers, including Turney. A small crew of 22 will stay aboard for now. The Akademik is not a true ice breaker. It is an ice strengthened vessel that is only 233 feet long with a gross tonnage of less than 2,000 tons and only 3,000 hp. How an icebreaker works is to power their strong bow on top of the ice and crush it.
To rescue the stuck ship conditions will have to improve and that may happen as it is summer in Antarctica. But Antarctica is not the only place gripped by cold, so is much of the United States and Canada.
Maybe this is Mother Nature telling us that our egos are just too big as she continually unleashes conditions that are just beyond human capabilities. Just as are the egos of the environmental community saying that humans can significantly affect the climate and Mother Nature.
What will happen to the Akademik Shokalskiy is unclear. If the cold conditions continue and the sea ice does not abate soon or continues to grow, it could be crushed by the pressure of the ice against its hull and hopefully helicopters could rescue the rest of the crew.
What else does this event portend? The next ice age? How do ice ages begin? Just like what is going on in Antarctica. Freak storms don’t let the ice melt and the ice pack grows. Right now, contrary to the professor quoted above, it’s not just the growth in Antarctic ice, but Arctic sea ice is at its largest extent in a decade or more, too. Global temperatures only have to drop by a couple of degrees and in a few decades there would solid ice 10 to 50 feet thick beyond the Canadian border to the south that becomes permanent. It is not a pretty scenario, but it is not out of the question. It is the middle of summer in Antarctica and there is heavy sea ice in areas that are usually devoid of ice. This is a cold wave during summer and this change in the weather or climate has nothing to do with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It has to do with natural variability. Maybe it is part of the Malinkovitch cycles?
The other irony that will be heard soon is that the circumstances of the Akademik Shokalskiy were caused by humans. In one respect they will be correct. The crew ignored the weather, but as to the unusual sea ice being caused somehow by humans, that will be pure penguin poop.
News Bulletin: On Jan. 8, both the Chinese Sea Dragon and the Russian Akademik Shokalskiy were able to free themselves from the ice and the Polar Star has been redirected to its regular mission of keeping the McMurdo Sound ship channel open.
Larry Weiztman is a resident of Rescue. His column appears biweekly.