The flight should have been routine: a straight shot from Sjögren Glacier on the coast of Antarctica, over an ocean sound crusted with sea ice, back to the ship where we were based, 20 miles east. But as moments passed, a haze of fog and snow flurries closed in on the helicopter. Our pilot, Barry James, glided lower and lower over the sea ice; with no horizon on sight, the ice’s rippled, wind-pocked texture provided his only frame of reference for keeping the helicopter stable in the air. Even this lifeline began to dissolve into milky white, and James wisely chose to land the helo on the only non-white object in sight: a dark swath of stone and sand that had just come into view — the small corner of an island that was otherwise cloaked in glaciers. James spoke into his radio: “Five papa hotel”—the aircraft’s call letters—“this is Barry. I've landed. There's too much snow and not enough visibility to continue.” And so began an unlikely adventure. We expected to wait 15 minutes for weather to improve. Instead, we waited for days.
The helo would become unflyable as icicles encrusted its delicate rotor. Our ship, the 6,000-ton icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer would curtail its scientific research as it attempted to reach us. Our experience illustrates the limits of what even massive resources can accomplish in the deep polar regions. It also sheds light on the drama that has unfolded off the coast of East Antarctica as crew members attempted to free the Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy from the sea ice that trapped it for two weeks. Fifty two tourists and scientists were rescued by helicopter on January 1; but the ship remained wedged in ice with 22 crew on board for another six days before finally getting free earlier today. It represents the latest in a troubling trend: Tourist or fishing vessels getting in over their heads in Antarctica, exacting a heavy toll on already-stretched scientific research assets in the area. The Chinese research icebreaker that helped rescue the Shokalskiy’s passengers also became mired in ice for several days, and the U.S. icebreaker, Polar Star, was dispatched from Australia on January 2 to aid both ships.