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The boat seen from afar.  Australasian Antarctic Expedition. www.spiritofmawson.com

The M.V. Akademik Shokalskiy (pictured), has been stuck in ice since Christmas Eve.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREW PEACOCK, AUSTRALIANANTAR/AURORA PHOTOS  

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic

Published January 2, 2014

After a "sobering week," 52 passengers aboard the M.V. Akademik Shokalskiy were airlifted by helicopter on Thursday from the Russian vessel, which has been trapped in ice in East Antarctica since Christmas Eve.

"Feeling relieved that this process is mostly over now," Andrew Peacock, a photographer aboard the ship, told National Geographic by email. "We are very grateful to everyone."

Peacock added that he's sad that 22 Russian crew members, as part of their employment, have to remain on the ship until the ice breaks up enough for them to free the vessel from its frozen grip.

The scientists, media, and students aboard the ship were returning from a month-long scientific expedition that revisited sites in East Antarctica first seen by Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson's team over a hundred years ago. (See also: "Ship Stuck in Antarctica Raises Questions About Worth of Reenacting Expeditions.")

We have learned from nature, as humankind always does," Peacock said, "that it’s possible to be caught by an unexpected and not predicted situation.

Two nearby icebreakers attempted to rescue the ship but were thwarted by heavy ice themselves, eventually prompting a rescue operation by helicopter from the Chinese vessel Xue Long.

We talked to Antarctic experts about what can be learned from this modern-day Antarctic drama. Five lessons:

1. When traveling in Antarctica, be prepared for anything.

Mahlon C. Kennicutt II, a professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University who leads several Antarctic research groups, said that means planning for the worst-case scenario, as well as having a plan B, C, and D. That might mean stocking up on food and supplies that can last a really long time—which the Akademik Shokalskiy crew did.

Also crucial is to "always travel with a captain and crew experienced in Antarctic waters" who know to "err on the side of caution when entering ice-infested waters," Kennicutt said by email. (See your Antarctica photos.)

Adventure writer David Roberts noted that it's unusual for a ship like Akademik Shokalskiy to get caught in ice.

"A good captain is intensely leery of [getting caught in ice] and knows how to avoid it," said Roberts, author of the Mawson book Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration.

But without knowing exactly what happened in the case of Akademik Shokalskiy, he added, "I'm not going to second-guess the Russian captain."

Peacock told National Geographic that the ship and crew were "very well prepared for ship-and-shore-based travel in this part of the world."

"Our Russian captain and our expedition team, of which I was a member as the doctor, are all very experienced," he said. "We were unlucky we believe and the ice pack that developed around us was much thicker and heavier than our ship was capable of breaking through."

2. Rescues in the 21st century are pretty much guaranteed.

Up until about the 1970s, if you were an explorer who got into trouble, you had to rescue yourself, said Roberts.

In 1911, for instance, Mawson and his crew knew there was no hope of rescue: They had no contact with the outside world, and if a ship got stuck in the ice, their only option was to spend the winter onboard and hope the next summer's thaw freed the vessel. (Related: "Opinion: 6 Reasons Antarctic Explorers Were Tougher 100 Years Ago.")

It’s a royal f--- up and it’s being treated as something heroic.

Nowadays—with the exception of deep caves—people in trouble can be removed from virtually anywhere, even a Himalayan peak, Roberts said.

"It's taken for granted, like it's a God-given right that you'll be rescued."

That's why Roberts takes issue with the intense media focus that implies the Akademik Shokalskiy crew is enduring great hardship.

"It's a royal f--- up and it's being treated as something heroic," he said.

"If I were in that situation, I would retreat with my tail between my legs instead of singing songs about the penguins," he said.

Peacock, the photographer and doctor aboard the ship, noted that "we were not in any danger, but it was still an unsettling experience for everyone aboard, and it was great to see how we all pulled together to support one another."

3. The other two icebreakers' efforts to free the ship should be applauded—as should the helicopter pilot who made the rescue.

China's Xue Long and Australia's Aurora Australis both got within miles of the stranded ship but had to turn back due to thick ice and poor weather.

Unable to fly for a few days due to poor conditions, the helicopter aboard the Xue Long finally landed on the Akademik Shokalskiy and rescued the passengers.

"Helicoptering in places like that isn't a piece of cake," Roberts said, noting that Antarctic weather can be unpredictable and dangerous.

He called the icebreakers' assistance a "great humanitarian act."

4. The ice surrounding the ship doesn't mean that Antarctica's not melting.

FoxNews.com reported that global warming skeptics have poked fun at the scientists, highlighting the irony of climate change scientists being trapped in ice.

But expedition leader Chris Turney said that the team's situation may have been in part due to warming oceans, which broke an iceberg into smaller pieces that the wind then swept against the ship, according to FoxNews.com.

Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, added by email that "any comments about overall ice shrinking or increasing are absurd in this situation.

"In the Antarctic, the ice is not limited by land and it is well established that winds blow the ice around. Winds from the south, especially off the continent, carry ice away from the continent and create more ice behind, filling in any gaps."

5. Antarctic travel is really, really unpredictable.

Antarctica is the coldest and windiest place on Earth, and extreme blizzards can arise out of nowhere. Such a storm prevented the Australian icebreaker from getting any closer to the stranded ship.

"We have learned from nature, as humankind always does," Peacock said, that it's possible to be "caught by an unexpected and not predicted" situation.

"We were," he said, "in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Follow Christine Dell'Amore on Twitter and Google+.

12 comments
Reuben Boarman
Reuben Boarman

This is the best reporting I have read about these events.


The freeing of the smaller Russian ship should be somewhat delicate, even the Chinese Snow Dragon will need considerable caution.


I am sure we will see a well planned method to break them free without damaging either ship.


I am counting on the USCG Polar Star Icebreaker

Ernest Barker
Ernest Barker

"..... expedition leader Chris Turney said that the team's situation may have been in part due to warming oceans, which broke an iceberg into smaller pieces that the wind then swept against the ship ... ..." Hmm .... ... I  am inclined to think these "AL Gore faithfuls" got into trouble because of stupidity.

Kenneth Berger
Kenneth Berger

You can't get the best of Mother Nature in all that ice that's for sure

Randall Carruthers
Randall Carruthers

6. Scientists with no common sense can continue to "Tweet" out their self-important, first world, inconsequential messages to everyone who couldn't care less. All the while, waiting to be rescued after underestimating the risk. Rephrased: Act on your ill-conceived, silly, narcissistic ambitions and wait for rescue by people who risk their very lives to bring you back to your insulated, artificial, academic existence.

Ross Kaminsky
Ross Kaminsky

Lesson #1: Global warming alarmists never learn the lesson no matter how many times the "Gore Effect" proves to the rest of the world that they are simply grant-seeking cult members (and occasionally transparent anti-capitalists disguised as researchers.)

Stuart M.
Stuart M.

Antarctic Ship Rescued? Doesn't sound to me like the ship was rescued, the people were. 

Karl Quick
Karl Quick

The delicious irony is underplayed....  Eco-tourists join a cruse in the middle of Antarctic summer to retrace an explorer who 100 years earlier sailed to the coast and measured the ice melt, fully expecting to demonstrate how much easier the trip is today due to reduce ice (i.e. "Global Warming".)

But truly, the blizzards this summer are not reason for any skeptics to gloat, because indeed there are far more variables in weather than fit in any believer's model.... but we ALL should know better.

The number 1 lesson of all scientific research:

  ....nature is beautifully designed to deflate the ego of any academic who chooses to actually test their beliefs against reality.  

History repeatedly demonstrates that we advance our understanding of reality by collecting a huge stockpile of broken models, repeatedly proved to be wrong, until we finally have satiated ourselves with all the "predictions" we had to "eat".  Boated and embarrassed, we walk off into retirement, leaving the slightly advanced field to youth still ignorant enough to have egos that drive them into false models and flawed predictions.  We advance through failure... after all, we're human.

The number ONE lesson of science is HUMILITY!

 

Flower Jasmin
Flower Jasmin

"But expedition leader Chris Turney said that the team's situation may have been in part due to warming oceans" When they say "may have been" you know the bs. I guess he knows so well that he took so many people along in the winter to Antarctic.

kevin b
kevin b

whew, thank goodness for point 4.  Although now delayed, looking forward to the scientists conclusions that there's not enough ice down there.   The "research" conclusion was written before they left, Go Science!

mike smith
mike smith

@kevin b

Did you read the same article  did?  It clearly states the point of the expedition was revisiting sites explored by an earlier expedition.  What did you base your statement on?  Go reading comprehension!

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