Now it's the Americans' turn to help out down south. After failed attempts by ships from Australia and France, the U.S. Coast Guard has dispatched the Polar Star, a heavy-duty icebreaker that will make its way to a Russian science vessel and a Chinese ice breaker -- both trapped in ice off the coast of Antarctica.
On Tuesday, the captain of the Russian ship told news services that he was slowly moving through the ice along with the Chinese ship after a slight change in weather. Still, the two vessels are reportedly not yet in open waters.
But how do icebreakers work and how could they get stuck? It seems that even the toughest ships sometimes are no match for sea ice that can quickly surround a vessel with hull-crushing strength.
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"Once the ice has got you in a squeeze, there is nothing you can do to get out of the way," said Sprague Theobald, a documentary filmmaker who was trapped in Arctic sea ice for several days in 2009 on a 57-foot trawler with his family. "It's as if a jigsaw puzzle came into place and you were locked in. The ice will move the way it wants to move."
While Theobald was on a smaller craft, even massive scientific ships and icebreakers can become immobilized under the right conditions. That appears to have happened to the crew of the Russian scientific ship Akademika Shokalskiy, which became trapped on Dec. 24 near Commonwealth Bay, Antarctica.
A Chinese ship, the Xue Long, or Snow Dragon in Chinese, sent helicopters to ferry 52 scientists and passengers from the Shokalskiy to an Australian ship last week. But now the crew of the Xue Long, too, is trapped.
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The Xue Long is actually a Ukranian cargo ship converted to an ice-hardened transport to supply China's growing scientific presence on the Antarctic continent. It can break 3.5 feet of ice (1.1 meters), while traveling at 1.5 knots, according to the China Daily website. In contrast, the Polar Star, which just completed a three-year $90 million renovation, can smash through 6 feet of ice at 3 knots, according to the Coast Guard.
Some ice floes around the Chinese ship are reportedly more than 13 feet thick. While the bow of the Chinese vessel cuts through ice like a knife, the American ship and other heavy duty icebreakers actually ram the ice to break it. The Polar Star uses its powerful 60,000 horsepower diesel engines to flop on top of the ice sheet, smashing it like a 13,000-ton hammer.
"It's the design of the hull that is quite helpful, it looks like a bathtub," said Capt. Jason Hamilton, a former officer both on the Polar Star and its sister ship the Polar Sea, and now a legal officer for the Coast Guard, based in Seattle. "It rides up on top of the ice and breaks it."
There are other ways to break ice. The Swedish icebreaker Oden, which the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) leased for several years while the Polar Star was being refitted, uses hydraulic pumps to lift its square-shaped bow on top of the ice in an up-and-down crushing motion.
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The Polar Star left Australia and is expected to arrive near the Chinese and Russian vessels this weekend. By then, the captain will have a better idea of what he's up against. Danger is everywhere; uncharted currents move ice packs quickly and navigators having difficulty telling how thick the ice is at any given time.
Satellite data and surface ridges that indicate where packs are colliding on the surface only give an estimate. Hamilton says the Polar Star will need to leave itself an escape route.
"You break the ice in a manner so you can back out and don't put your situation where you are in extremis," he said.
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For those waiting for rescue, time is spent fighting boredom and hoping that enough pressure will ease so the ice floes will move.
"You get a little anxious because you can't do much science," said Till Wagner, an ice scientist and postdoctoral fellow at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, Ca., who has been icebound on research cruises in both the Arctic Sea and Antarctic Ocean.
"Once you are stuck in the ice, you just have to wait. In a way it is magical. You are in this vast space and it's quiet. Nothing happens. There is a certain tranquility about it."
So what if the American icebreaker gets stuck? There may be one final rescue squad. The Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Let Pobedy can ram through 10-foot ice and packs a 74,000-horsepower wallop. However, its last known position was near its home port of Murmansk, Russia, on the other side of the planet.