Who's on That Russian Ship Stuck on Antarctic Ice? And Why?

An expedition is recreating explorer Douglas Mawson's 100-year-old trek.

A Russian ship with 74 people onboard is stuck in a shaft of ice about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart, Australia.

Update: The Russian vessel, the M.V. Akademik Shokalskiy, which was stranded off the coast of Antarctica with 74 people onboard, remains stranded. Attempts were made by the Chinese icebreaker, Snow Dragon, and other Russian icebreakers, but the ice was too thick. Rescue crews hope to get to the stranded passengers soon.

A Russian vessel is stranded in ice off the coast of Antarctica with 74 people onboard, including the scientific team recreating explorer Douglas Mawson's Australasian Antarctic Expedition from a century ago.

The ship, the M.V. Akademik Shokalskiy, is waiting for emergency help—though help might take some time to come, given a blizzard that pummeled the area. The ship locked up in the ice on Christmas.

"The vessel hasn't moved in the last two days, and we're surrounded by sea ice," said Chris Turney, leader of the modern-day Australasian Antarctic Expedition, said in a video posted on Twitter. "We just can't get through."

The blizzard that locked the ship in ice had also forestalled immediate rescue.

"We have wind speeds on average of 50 kilometers [30 miles] an hour, reaching in excess of 70 [45 miles] kilometers an hour," Turney said.

No injuries have been reported thus far, and according to a tweet from Turney, the blizzard has passed—though the ship remains solidly lodged in the ice.

What exactly are Turney and his team attempting to do in Antarctica? Here are five things you need to know about the expedition and why it matters.

1. Who is Douglas Mawson?

Most people are familiar with explorers like Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott, two explorers who raced to reach the South Pole.

But Douglas Mawson was different. Along with two fellow explorers, Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis, Mawson sought to study the shelves of ice rimming Antarctica, ones that had remained untouched for millions of years. The trio left a base camp hut in Commonwealth Bay on December 14, 1912.

The scientific expedition turned into an epic life-or-death struggle: Ninnis, along with the team's vital gear, food, and dogs, tumbled through a 150-foot-deep (46-meter-deep) crevasse.

Mertz died on the way back.

Mawson fought the elements to return alone and on the brink of death to the team's hut on February 8, 1913. But he was triumphant, bearing valuable data that would shape modern understanding of Antarctica. His travails prompted Sir Edmund Hillary to call Mawson's tale "the greatest survival story in the history of exploration."

Had the ship carrying the trio of explorers in 1912, the Aurora, gotten icebound the same way the M.V. Akademik Shokalskiy did, there would have been no rescue option and certain death. Today's technology allows for connecting with rescue missions, but John King Davis, the skipper guiding the Aurora over 100 years ago, was terrified of the possibility of being marooned in ice—making the trek the three explorers took even more impressive.

(Read about the expedition in "Into the Unknown" in National Geographic magazine; see the gallery of photos from the original expedition here.)

2. Why are we recreating the trip Mawson took one hundred years ago?

One hundred years after Mawson's journey, we still don't know much about the Antarctic.

Plus, the century mark for Mawson's trip serves as a marker of exploration. The current crop of explorers are hoping to document some of the same data and compare them to Mawson's numbers, "using the twist of modern technology," Turney told National Geographic earlier this month.

As may be expected, global warming might play a role in this, he suggests, particularly with respect to melted ice in the East Antarctic.

The group will also test the salinity of the ocean, take censuses of local bird populations, drill into the ice to extract mineral data, and send drones to map Antarctica's Commonwealth Bay.

3. Where are the scientists going?

The goal is for the group to follow Mawson's trek, collect data, and find the original hut that Mawson returned to.

One related question remains worth noting, however: Where is the South Pole?

Prince Harry supposedly reached the South Pole earlier this month, but debate later broke out about the multiple—three, to be exact—South Poles in the area.

Why is this the case? Let's remember, the South Pole is essentially on a huge chunk of ice, which means the continent of Antarctica is constantly shifting around and moving.

Throw in global warming and ocean currents and you've got the recipe for a South Pole that moves about 33 feet (10 meters) per year.

Then there's the idea of a magnetic South Pole, which also isn't exactly steady, as it's been shown to move northward toward Australia about six to nine miles (10 to 15 kilometers) per year.

Looking for a South Pole that doesn't move? Check out the trustworthy ceremonial South Pole. And while you're at it, you can even take a photo there.

4. Is help on the way?

Yes—the Australian Maritime Safety Authority tweeted that they are sending a search-and-rescue team toward the M.V. Akademik Shokalskiy.



According to AMSA, the ships being sent have "icebreaking capability" and are expected to arrive by Friday when winds subside.

5. Has the team been able to collect any information yet?

No fear: despite being stranded on ice, the exploration team has already begun collecting information, as documented by Turney.

You, too, can follow the expedition by tracking the team's progress to the South Pole or checking out their blog, The Spirit of Mawson, which is updating followers of the team's progress.


Follow Tanya Basu on Twitter.