In an ironic turn of events, China’s Xue Long ice-breaker may now itself be stuck in the Antarctic ice. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority received a notification Friday afternoon from the Xue Long that “it has concerns about their ability to move through heavy ice in the area.”
The Xue Long successfully rescued all 52 passengers who were stranded for over a week aboard the Akademic Shokalskiy ship in Antarctica. It dispatched a helicopter to lift the passengers to the Australian Aurora Australis ice-breaker. The passengers aboard the Shokalskiy had been trapped in ice floes since December 24.
A BBC report states that the Aurora Australis is on standby to assist the Xue Long should it need assistance escaping from the ice. Andrew Luck-Baker, a reporter for the BBC aboard the Aurora Australis notes:
The irony of the situation is that the Xue Long was originally summoned to break a clear route through the pack ice to the smaller Russian vessel. That was not possible and the large icebreaker is now trapped itself.
As a precautionary measure, the Australian icebreaker has been put on standby to assist the Xue Long, if needs be. All the vessels involved in this drama are within a sea area of East Antarctica that is claimed by Australia. Hence, the coordinating role lies with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
The Xue Long, also know as Snow Dragon, is China’s lone icebreaking research vessel and has been in service since 1993. The ship was originally made in Ukraine, where it was converted from a cargo ship to a research vessel fit to navigate the harsh polar seas. Since its purchase by China in 1993, the Xue Long has seen major upgrades, particularly in 2007 when it was outfitted with a series of improvements intended to extend its lifespan by 15 years. Jean De Pomereu of the International Polar Foundation called the Xue Long the “most famous ship in China.”
The Xue Long is under command of Captain Wang Jianzhong, a veteran sailor on the ship who has served since its acquisition by China in 1993. The Russian Akademic Shokalskiy was part of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE). Since the successful rescue mission by the Xue Long, members of the AAE have lauded Captain Wang and paid tribute to him and his crew, according to the BBC. The Chinese crew of the Xue Long were hailed as heroes by some for their diligent rescue effort and Captain Wang himself was praised as an “incredible ambassador for his country” by one marine biologist at the University of New South Wales.
Icebreakers aren’t entirely foolproof against thick polar ice floes and can become stuck themselves, as the saga surrounding the Akademic Shokalskiy demonstrates. The Xue Long, the Aurora Australis, and another ship, the French L’Astrolabe, all failed to penetrate the 10-foot-thick Antarctic ice that blocked passage to the stranded Akademic Shokalskiy. Alan Boyle, NBC News science editor, explains that “Icebreakers don’t make their way through the thickest icepacks by cutting through it like a knife. Instead, their rounded keels slide over the ice and crash down into the water below.”
The BBC’s correspondent aboard the Aurora Australis suggests that an extra-high tide on Saturday might exert enough vertical force on the ice floes to weaken the ice and allow the Xue Long to navigate out of the ice. If the Xue Long remains stranded, another rescue operation may be necessary.