The Seattle-based Polar Star, the Coast Guard’s only active heavy polar icebreaker, is on its way to the Antarctic to assist a Russian ship and a Chinese icebreaker reportedly stuck in thick ice.
The Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, which helped with the rescue of 52 passengers from the Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy earlier in the week, is now feared to be blocked by ice as well, according to news reports.
The Polar Star, which recently completed a three-year, $90 million overhaul, is responding to a request from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, the rescue-operations coordinator, the Coast Guard said today. The ship, 399 feet in length and able to continuously break 6 feet of ice at 3 knots, is specifically designed for open-water icebreaking, with a reinforced hull and special ice-breaking bow.
“Our highest priority is safety of life at sea, which is why we are assisting in breaking a navigational path for both of these vessels,” said Vice Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, Coast Guard Pacific area commander, in a statement. “We are always ready and duty bound to render assistance in one of the most remote and harsh environments on the face of the globe.”
The Polar Star left Seattle in early December on a mission to break a channel through the sea ice of McMurdo Sound to resupply and refuel the U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station on Ross Island. The trip is the Polar Star’s first since 2006 for one of its primary missions, called “Operation Deep Freeze.”
Late Thursday, a helicopter from the Xue Long (Snow Dragon) flew 52 scientists and tourists aboard the Russian ship to a nearby Australian icebreaker, the Aurora Australis. A Chinese reporter aboard the Xue Long said late Saturday that an iceberg had appeared overnight and blocked the ship’s return route, but that the ship would again try to find a way out as early as Monday, according to The Associated Press.
The reporter, Zhang Jiansong, said the 101 crew members on board were safe and had plenty of supplies.