Akademik Shokalskiy: the fateful moment

“The smallest mistakes can cascade into a disaster” 
Chris Turney

Akademik Shokalskiy and its passengers

It has been more than a week since the Akademik Shokalskiy got stuck in Antarctic sea ice. Its passengers have now been removed. Events are embedded safely enough in the past. Fortunately, beyond the monopoly of the flowery-but-unilluminating Alok Jha and the disinformation-obsessed BBC and the forced gaiety of the eco-tourists, independent voices are available. One of them is Janet Rice, an Australian Green party Senate candidate.

In any failure, cascades and systemic problems are likely to be present. Uncomfortable but obvious questions are on everyone’s minds: Anthony Watts and Andrew Bolt have put them out.

On the other hand, the official narrative is as follows: The Shokalskiy arrived at Commonwealth bay, Antarctica. They were two miles from open sea. ‘Suddenly’, a blizzard arose and thick ice packed around the ship. The vessel was trapped.

Consider how improbable the sequence sounds. Weather forecasts are easily available. A ship venturing to the Antarctic would have had access to the best possible forecasts. The captain would have known well in advance of approaching storms and high winds. The expeditioners proclaim how aware they were things could change on a dime. Which means, there must have been some limiting factor preventing him from acting on it. 

[1] On the 19th and 20th, two teams made round trips to Mawson’s huts in Cape Denison. The weather was good—in the words of Turney, “glorious sunshine” and winds “all spent”. The second party arrived back at the ship by 21st morning, 5:30 AM. The groups used Argo all-terrain-vehicles (ATVs).[2] Starting Saturday the 21st, the ship pushed off from the ‘fast ice’ and traveled away from the coast. On Sunday the 22nd, the passengers were aware a blizzard was forecast. Wrote Rice at around 8PM:

Ah it must be because the days are now getting shorter that the weather has changed! There’s a blizzard on the way apparently!

[3] On Monday 23rd, the fateful day, the Akademik Shokalskiy sailed back toward the coast. The goal was to take people to Hodgeman islets, 8 km from the edge of fast ice, to study penguins and seals. Recall the circumstances under which this was being done: a storm was approaching and the ship was moving into thick, fast ice it well knew had built up substantially in the area.

google maps Guardian copy

Artwork adapted from map available on the Guardian website

At the moment however the weather was good. According to Rice though winds were already up and snowing there was ‘blue sky and sunshine for some periods’. She wrote:

We were out in similar conditions this afternoon. Somewhat brighter – in fact there was blue sky and sunshine for some periods. The weather has been better than the forecast blizzard, so that was good.

This was the window they were straddling, the cusp, before which the ship was moving and free and after which it found itself jammed in thick ice.

Events on the ground

The Hodgeman trip was made with zodiacs (an inflatable boat) and Argos. Exact details are not known, but the Argos were towed ashore by the zodiacs in the final stretch. Two Argos made it dry and onto the rocks but the third one dipped underwater. As Rice reports: (archived here)

The first drama of the day was the sinking – or almost! – of one of the Argos. The Argos are designed to be amphibious – just. They were launched today off the ship – and two of the three made it safely being towed by a zodiac the 50 metres or so to shore. The third was towed too fast it seems – and water came over the bonnet / bow, flooding both the engine and the vehicle itself.

Even earlier, Rice had encountered vehicular troubles with the Argo. Argo manufacturer ODG claims their vehicles are fully amphibious, and it is not clear how the engine took in water when not running, but it stopped working.

Sadly Argo engines don’t take too kindly to being submerged… the ships engineers are still working on it and not very optimistic about its prospects

The unexpected loss of operation of one of the vehicles slowed down the team. Not only were they stuck towing back the non-functioning vehicle, people had to be ferried in the remaining ones. Meanwhile, the storm closed in. As Kerry-Jayne Wilson, a penguin biologist running the Blue Penguin Trust  put it, they ‘set out in blowing snow and near gale winds; it got worse’. The captain was definitely concerned. In the words of Rice:

Because of the Argo mishap we got off late, and had one less vehicle to ferry people to and fro. I’m told the Captain was becoming rather definite late in the afternoon that we needed to get everyone back on board ASAP because of the coming weather and the ice closing in.

There can be little question the misadventure cost the expedition dearly. The ship was in a position where getting away was possible but held up for the exploring party to get back aboard:

I’m sure the Captain would have been much happier if we had got away a few hours earlier. Maybe we would have made it through the worst before it consolidated as much as it has with the very cold south- easterly winds blowing the ice away from the coast, around and behind us as well as ahead.

By the evening of Monday the ship was trapped though perhaps not realizing it. Rice saw from her porthole the ship was making ‘very slow progress, … oscillat[ing] between hardly moving to suddenly being jolted sideways with a crunch’. At 9 AM morning the next day, they had moved ‘less than a kilometre over night, and [were] now stationary in a sea of ice’.

The ship is still stuck in the same place.

Epilogue

There can be little doubt the Akademik Shokalskiy knew there was extensive, thick, multi-year ice in Commonwealth Bay. Turney knew southerly winds were prevalent and would likely drive pack ice against their vessel. Yet, by committing to the Hodgeson islands in the narrow window, the team put significant pressures on their time. The all-terrain vehicle mishap became the tipping point in the debacle.

Notes:

[1] Notrickszone independently carried the story.

[2] The story has been published as a guest post on Joanne Nova

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