UTIG polar researchers Dillon Buhl, Anja Rutishauser and Natalie Wolfenbarger have joined colleagues in West Antarctica to conduct vital surveys of one of the most unstable glaciers on Earth. The team are part of LIONESS, an international collaboration between The University of Texas at Austin, Montana State University and the Korea Polar Research Institute (KOPRI), which aims to resolve unanswered questions about the sprawling Thwaites Glacier system.
The team set off from New Zealand on December 29 aboard the R/V Araon, a Korean ice breaker that will carry them to West Antarctica. On January 10, while on approach to Thwaites Glacier, the R/V Araon received a distress call from a fishing boat trapped in ice in the Ross Sea. The crew responded and quickly set the Korean ice breaker’s armored keel on course for the stricken vessel.
Although their science would have to wait, rushing to the aid of another vessel was an opportunity for the UTIG science team to witness a rescue operation firsthand. It was also a stark reminder of the dangers of working among the far oceans of the Earth.
UTIG postdoc Anja Rutishauser, sent us her account of the rescue operation.
If you’ve been following our path you may have noticed we’ve been somewhat off-course the last few days. Not long ago, the crew received word that a Korean fishing vessel, the Hong Jin No.707, had broken down and become trapped in ice. As the nearest vessel able to help, we’ve changed course and are now on a rescue mission to the middle of the Ross Sea to help the broken down vessel!
I was surprised when I finally saw the vessel. It looked much smaller, and older than I expected. I couldn’t help thinking, “what is this rusty old boat doing all the way out here!?”
Breaking our way through the ice to reach the vessel was no problem for our ice breaker. Getting them out was a different matter!
The bridge was a hive of activity as the crews did their best to rescue the disabled vessel and its 34 crew members.
The Araon made two attempts to tow the boat out of the ice field, but all we could do was watch as both efforts ended with snapped ropes and broken moorings!
Fortunately, another vessel called the SUNSTAR arrived, which was able to tow the HONGJIN NO.707 while the Araon cleared a path through the ice. Out here you need all the help you can get!
These kind of events are not uncommon out here on the edge of the world. In fact, as Dillon learned, the Araon and Sunstar had met before on a previous expedition when our ice breaker was called to rescue the Sunstar!
The entire rescue operation is expected to take around ten days. As we haven’t gathered any measurements yet, the science team is keeping busy finalizing preparations for the fieldwork and working on background for the research paper we will submit at the end of the cruise. Being here is also a great opportunity to exchange ideas with researchers who have joined us from other institutions.
There are plenty of other distractions on board too, including a library, a cinema and a gym. Table tennis is very popular and we’re planning a tournament over the next few days!
Somehow, time flies by and the days seem to merge, it’s pretty hard to keep track of individual days.
Hopefully, the rescue won’t affect our science schedule too much. All we need is a few days of good weather so fingers crossed!