Antarctica: The Soap Opera.

The great Christmas (and New Year) soap opera this year has been the unfolding icebreaker saga around the Mertz Glacier in East Antarctica with its ever expanding international marine cast list.

The drama has included five boats – four have already made an appearance on stage (or at least on ice), the Akademik Shokalskiy (Russian - the unwilling star), Astrolabe (French), Snow Dragon or Xue Long (Chinese) and Aurora Australis (Australian).  The fifth, Polar Star (from the US of A), is the as yet unseen hero what will, perhaps, sail over the horizon in the final act and save the day.

Act One. The saga started on Christmas Day.  A vast chunk of old multi-year ice from the Mertz Glacier starts getting blown along the Antarctic coast, neatly wrapping its way around the Akademik Shokalskiy, a small Russian-flagged, Australian-chartered research boat which was attempting to repeat a series of experiments that Douglas Mawson did along the same bit of Antarctic coast about 100 years ago.  Their plan was all going swimmingly until they realised that they found themselves trapped behind an increasingly thick and wide ice field.  Where once they has been about 2 miles from navigable sea, they were now 12 or 14 miles from  open water, and behind ice that far exceeded their ice-rating.  This realisation prompted a call to Falmouth in southern England (obviously) – who handed the message on to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (ASMA) who, to maintain the theatrical metaphor, took on the role of stage manager for the rest of the production.  The Shokalskiy, while not in any immediate danger, was not going to be in any position to sort out its own dilemma and was going to require assistance.  ASMA put the other three members of the cast on immediate call to provide assistance – all three, as required by the rules of the sea around Antarctica, immediately stopped what they were doing and headed towards the Shokalskiy.

Act Two. Scene One.  The Astrolabe made a brief attempt to break through the ice, realised it was out of its depth and exited stage left.

Act Two. Scene Two.  Snow Dragon (Zue Long) made an extended attempt to reach the Shokalskiy before eventually realising that it too was struggling.  The Snow Dragon stayed lurking on the back stage promising to provide helicopters if the ice breaking plan didn’t work out.

Act Two. Scene Three.  The Australian star enters the stage – and makes even more attempts to crash through the ice.  Again, without success.  The plot then takes its first twist – if one boat can’t do the job maybe two can.

Intermission. To give the media a chance to catch up with the story so far. And the weather a chance to ease a bit.

Act Three. Scene One. If the icebreakers can’t get to the Shokalskiy, maybe the people can be got to the icebreakers.  A plan is devised to use the Zue Long’s helicopter to ferry the Shokalskiy’s passengers to the Aurora Australis – and once the weather calms, this is exactly what happens.  End of Story.

Act Three. Scene Two. But no, we’ve only just had the intermission,  there must be more. Twist Two.  With all the Shokalskiy’s passengers (but not the crew) safely on the Aurora Australis, it makes ready to sail off into the sunset (bad metaphor this far south at this time of year),  just as the unlikely hero of the story, the Snow Dragon, discovers that sitting still for several days in a thickening ice field isn’t a good idea and sends out its own call for assistance.  The stage manager asks the Aurora Australis to remain where it is while the Snow Dragon attempts to unfreeze itself.   A little later, the Aurora Australis is told to take its bow and we are left with the Snow Dragon and the Akademik Shokalskiy (and their crews) looking at each other across the stage (or ice field) waiting to see what happens next. Tension Builds.

Act Four (yet to happen).  Will the US Coastguard in the form of the icebreaker Polar Star come and rescue our two lead players?

To be continued. Probably for several weeks. Maybe months.

Update: The two trapped characters do, after several days of struggling (and some changing winds), finally manage to extricate themselves from ice and head for open water. And the American hero apparently isn't going to be needed to save the day.

And to answer the obvious question, of course I was filled with envy at the experience the folks on the Shokalskiy have had. They’ll be dining out on this for months – and they certainly should have some good pictures.

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