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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

When Stranded in the Antarctic, Get Ready and Wait

Participants on the expedition voyage helped to prepare a landing area on Dec. 31 for a rescue helicopter.

Icebreakers have so far failed to reach the Australian research expedition ship that has been stuck in Antarctic ice for a week.

So passengers and crew have no other choice but to prepare for rescue. And then wait.

On Tuesday, linking arms and stomping in the snow and ice, a team of people from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition disembarked from their ship to try to create a landing pad for a helicopter.

It was New Year’s Eve, so they sang “Auld Lang Syne” as they tamped down the deep snow in heavy boots and big marching steps, their voices barely audible in the whipping wind.

“We have just learned the Aurora can’t reach us,” Dr. Chris Turney, an expedition leader, said in the video message posted on the expedition’s YouTube account, Intrepid Science, as more than a dozen of about 70 people total on the ship moved in a straggling row across deep snow behind him.

Dr. Turney said once the landing pad was cleared, a helicopter could try to evacuate them.

“When the weather improves,” he added.

Dr. Turney was referring to the Aurora Australis icebreaker, which got within 12 miles of the chartered Russian ship, the 233-foot Akademik Shokalskiy, early on Monday but had to turn back because of snow and high winds.

Maritime officials made preparations on Tuesday to airlift all 52 passengers aboard the Russian ship to a Chinese icebreaker, while the ship’s 22 crew members would stay behind.

With the expedition ship been jammed in an unyielding field of ice in the Antarctic since last Tuesday, passengers and expedition members have passed the time by sending out video messages to the outside world.

Oceanographer aboard the stranded ship describes his work as he waits for rescue on Dec, 31.

Erik Van Sebille, the oceanographer with the expedition, said on Tuesday in a video diary message that they had all been instructed to be ready for a possible evacuation but that in the meantime he was continuing to work on a joint project with the ornithologist, studying what effect the ocean temperature has on the number of birds they encounter.

“Everything must be ready to go as soon as possible, but in the meantime it’s a lot of waiting here.”

The videos and updates on Twitter have provided a running diary of life on the ship and efforts to keep up morale as the rescue attempts came and went.

On Tuesday a small group from the ship recorded an upbeat song composed just as New Year’s Eve approached, with light-hearted lyrics about thick ice, news coverage, and the appearance of would-be rescuers who had to turn back. “Bloody great shame we are still stuck here!” went a refrain.

New Year message from some of those stranded on the expedition ship in the Antarctic on Dec. 31.

But a National Geographic editor, Christine Dell’Amore, wrote that an Australian photographer on board the ship, Andrew Peacock, said in an email to the magazine that “the mood is getting more frustrated by the day.”

“There are so many variablesâ€"every briefing is differentâ€"and people are getting a little worried now while the weather stays poor. Lack of control and missing loved ones are starting to put some emotion into our conversations!”

Dr. Turney posted a blog item with descriptions of the weather and changes in the ice that conspired to trap the ship a week ago. He wrote, in part:

It has been a sobering week. At the time we were initially caught by the sea ice, the Shokalskiy was just 2 to 4 nautical miles from open water. Now the sea ice distance has become even greater with the continued winds from the east, putting our nearest point of exit at some 16 nautical miles.

The thick chaotic surface we see around the Shokalskiy is consistent with the idea that this ice is several years old and is considerably more difficult to break through by icebreaker than single year ice. The presence of dark watersky to the southeast shows the presence of open water which is reflecting off the underneath of clouds.

We hope the Australian ice breaker Aurora australis may have more luck finding leads from this ice edge to reach the Shokalskiy. We are all hoping the Shokalskiy will find a route out thanks to the efforts of the Australian and Chinese icebreakers.

Meanwhile on board the Shokalskiy, moral remains good and the team are pulling together in an extraordinary way. Everyone is working hard to support one another. Take a look at the video diaries on the Intrepid Science YouTube Channel to see what we are up to.

We are all keeping busy, with twice daily briefings outlining all the information we have to hand, alongside classes through the day (knot tying, languages, yoga, photography and many others) while the science programme has continued as best we can.

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.