Antarctic Expeditioners Run into Heavy Ice Year

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand, January 9, 2002 (ENS) - Unusually thick sea ice is snarling Antarctic shipping programs, but double the ice-breaking power, and a lucky break, mean the vital sea channel into McMurdo is now open.

The U.S. Coast Guard sent its two Polar class icebreakers, Polar Sea and Polar Star, to the Ross Sea to break the channel, which is necessary for a tanker and a freight ship to reach McMurdo for the annual resupply.

The U.S. National Science Foundation's representative in Christchurch, Arthur Brown, said Tuesday the channel had been recently cut to the McMurdo port area and is now being opened to the desired width.

"We were very fortunate that a storm just before Christmas greatly alleviated the problem," Brown said. The storm blew open part of the sea ice, but the US program still decided to make use of both ships.

"We're now pretty much on schedule," Brown said. "I couldn't have said that a month ago."

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The Polar Star breaks through Antarctic ice. (Photo by Andy Devilbiss courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
McMurdo's difficulties were largely attributed to the super icebergs, B-15 and C-16, which broke off the Ross Ice Shelf in early 2000 and have now run aground to the north of Ross Island, where the US and New Zealand bases are located.

The bergs are so large they have upset currents and winds of the Ross Sea, impeding the seasonal pack ice break-up, according to the US National Ice Center. However, Brown said is had also proven to be a tough year for ice, which was carrying a greater than usual snow burden.

Around the continent, similar conditions have forced radical change on at least two other national programs. The British ship Ernest Shackleton was forced back by Weddell Sea ice, and in Prydz Bay, expeditioners have been airlifted from the beset Australian resupply ship Polar Bird.

The Shackleton was blocked 200 nautical miles from Halley base by the ice, and the 60 people aboard waited for two weeks for the ice to break up before the British Antarctic Survey decided instead to head for South Georgia, and then the Falklands to refuel.

A BBC correspondent in Antarctica said four passengers would then return to Britain without having reached their goal, but most were expected to try to reach Halley again in a few weeks' time.

The Polar Bird has been immobile for nearly four weeks and a helicopter transfer to the other Australian ship, Aurora Australis, was completed Monday. Aurora is now on its way to Mawson station with the expeditioners.

Only Polar Bird's crew and a couple of specialists, such as a meteorologist, have been left on board. A change in the weather is seen as vital for the ship to break out. The Australian Antarctic Division's Kim Pitt said conditions were beyond the ice-breaking capability of Aurora.

{Published in cooperation with The Antarctican, online at: http://www.antarctican.com}