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Antarctic rescue efforts show family spirit

Publication Date : 07-01-2014

 

The thoughts of all Chinese people are with the 101 scientists and 42 crew stranded on board the Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, which has been stuck in Antarctic ice since Friday. We hope they can brave the adverse weather conditions, maintain their spirits and finally escape their predicament safe and sound. At this critical moment, assistance from any countries able to extend a helping hand is needed and would be welcomed.

The Xuelong became trapped after going to the aid of the Russian research vessel, the Akademik Shokalskiy, which had been stuck in ice since Christmas Eve. After thick sea ice, blinding snow and strong winds foiled attempts to reach the ship, clear weather on Thursday allowed the Xuelong's twin-rotor helicopter to successfully evacuate the 52 passengers on the Russian ship to the Aurora Australis, an Australian supply ship. However, the helicopter could only carry 12 passengers at a time and it took seven hours to transfer the scientists and tourists from one ship to another. While it was shuttling backwards and forwards from one vessel to another, the Xuelong's own passage was blocked by an iceberg, and it is now trapped in ice up to 4 metres thick, 15 kilometres from open water.

The Xuelong left Shanghai in early November on a 155-day mission, involving scientific research, construction of the country's new Antarctic research station and the inspection of an already established research station. Its decision to come to the aid of those on board the trapped Russian ship and its own stranding as a result, will undoubtedly interrupt its mission, as the window of favourable weather is limited in the Antarctic. However, the willingness of those on board the Xuelong to help those in need, fully demonstrates that China is a responsible member of the international community and its readiness to participate in any international rescue efforts where it can be of use.

And there can be no doubt that Chinese people are willing to go out on a limb to do so when necessary. Helicopter pilot Jia Shuliang said that he had no way of knowing whether the ice could withstand the helicopter's weight. And although it failed to pull the stranded Russian ship out of trouble and even put itself into an unexpected life-and-death situation, the successful rescue mission by the crew on board the Xuelong has won the hearts of people around the world.

And, although no substantial progress has been made in extricating itself from the ice, despite being stuck in such a precarious situation, the scientists on the Xuelong are continuing their research with a never-yielding spirit and the team is making full use of their unplanned stop to collect precious data from a geomagnetometre set up on the vessel.

Showing its own family spirit, the United States has acted in response to rescue requests from China, Australia and Russia, and dispatched one of its largest icebreakers, the Polar Star, to assist the still icebound Akademik Shokalskiy and the Xuelong. The commander of the US Coast Guard Pacific area, Vice-Admiral Paul Zukunft, said there is sufficient concern that the stranded vessels may not be able to free themselves from the ice, "which is why we are assisting in breaking a navigational path for both of these vessels".

It is expected the powerful 122-metre US icebreaker, which can break ice up to 1.8 metres while travelling at three knots and can break ice more than six metres thick, will reach the trapped Chinese and Russian ships by the end of the week, and hopefully it will be able to help free the two vessels from the icy clutches that hold them.

The trapping of the Akademik Shokalskiy and the Xuelong once again proves the necessity for the international community to put in place a timely international emergency rescue system.

Although the final outcome is yet to be seen, the efforts of all those involved from Australia, China, France and the US are praiseworthy paradigm of international cooperation and show that in times of need we can all pull together.

With the rapid advances in science and technology made over the last 100 years, humans have boldly extended their presence and set up long-stay bases to explore the polar regions and space. However, despite the remarkable technological advances that allow human beings to explore these regions, which are otherwise inhospitable to them, they are still vulnerable. But when the chips are down our common humanity can rise above our differences as the ongoing international cooperation and joint rescue efforts in the Antarctic show.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily.


 

 

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