Thursday, December 25, 2014
Rescued scientists bring back a terrifying warning from the Antarctic
The icebound crew of the Akademik Shokalskiy made headlines but, a year on, the fruits of their expedition are revealed
The voyage was meant to retrace the steps of Douglas Mawson, the great polar explorer and scientist who led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911. What happened instead captured the world’s attention, something none of the scientists, journalists and paying public aboard could have foreseen.
The Akademik Shokalskiy got stuck in ice on Christmas Day 2013 only two weeks after leaving New Zealand. A rescue mission swung into operation. Chinese, French and Australian icebreakers hurried to the scene only to be defeated by the ice floes themselves.
News editors around the world must have thanked their chosen gods. Into the seasonal dead zone, a real story had dropped. Stranded far from home, those aboard the Shokalskiy faced danger amidst the spectacular ice.
That New Year’s Eve an interview with expedition leader Chris Turney was beamed live to Times Square in New York. Two days later, the rescue effort entered a new phase. With no icebreaker able to smash way through, a Chinese helicopter, Xue Ying, or “Snow Eagle”, rose into the air for the first of five flights to ferry passengers from the stricken ship to the Aurora Australis. A core crew remained behind to sail vessel home once conditions allowed.
Media interest in the expedition faded after the rescue, but in the year since Turney and his team have been busy. Scientific samples and measurements from the voyage are being turned into research papers that reveal striking changes at the southern ice cap. And rather than feeling discouraged about expeditions that are funded by paying passengers, Turney is more enthusiastic than ever.
“Once we got back home and made sure everyone was all right, we got on with working up the data and getting a whole load of papers ready for submission,” Turney said. Like the rescue mission, this involved plenty of waiting. “It took nearly six months to get all the samples through quarantine.”
Simple observations told unhappy stories. Trawls of water reeled in hauls of plastic rubbish, now seemingly ubiquitous in the world’s oceans. On land, counts of Adélie penguins revealed the population had slumped near Mawson’s huts in Commonwealth Bay in East Antarctica. The birds are now commuting 40 miles to get food for their young. “Another 10 years there probably won’t be many left,” said Turney. The numbers of skuas seemed to have fallen too.