Hydrology, Cryosphere & Earth Surface News

U.S. Scientists Safely Retrieved from Ice-Bound Antarctic Island

Argentineans came to the aid of stranded scientists.


A helicopter from an Argentinean icebreaker plucked four U.S. scientists, a support person, and all their gear from a scientific field camp on an island off the Antarctic coast on Sunday morning after ice and weather conditions prevented a U.S. vessel from retrieving them.

The scientists, who were conducting research funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), had completed their paleoclimate field work, they are safe, and they were never in any danger because they had sufficient provisions to last for about 2 more weeks, according to Kelly Falkner, director of NSF’s Office of Polar Programs (OPP).

The incident “did catch the attention of diplomats, and that’s why it rose to a news item,” Falkner told Eos.

A Difficult Combination of Fog and Ice

The four-person research team led by principal investigator Alexander Simms, an assistant professor and sedimentologist in the Department of Earth Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was on Joinville Island in the Weddell Sea. There, the scientists were sampling and conducting elevation and ground-penetrating radar surveys of raised beaches to determine their ages and to reconstruct past sea levels and climate.

The U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) research vessel Laurence M. Gould was expected to collect the scientists from the island. However, it’s not an icebreaker (although it is ice reinforced) and proved unable to safely navigate to the island, Falkner told Eos. “A combination of fog and ice was making it very difficult for [the Gould] to make headway close enough to put Zodiacs”—small motorized boats—“in the water to retrieve people,” she said.

Scientists wait for a helicopter liftoff from Joinville Island.
Scientists wait for a helicopter liftoff from Joinville Island. Credit: National Science Foundation

After the USAP requested assistance, the Argentinean icebreaker Almirante Irízar, which had been operating nearby, steamed several hours to pick up the stranded researchers and a fifth person who is an employee of ASC, an NSF support contractor, according to the Argentinean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship.

A Tough Work Environment

“Antarctica remains a tough operational work area because of its extreme environment. You can plan for all kinds of things, but you can’t plan for everything,” Falkner said, adding that NSF does a lot of advance and contingency planning and works closely with its international counterparts on a regular basis through the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs.

This kind of incident is pretty rare, Falkner said. “This is the first time I have requested such assistance following a camp that NSF put in in my seven years at OPP,” she noted. “This wasn’t an emergency, but we are very grateful that we can engage with our international partners to take care of situations that could become emergencies.”

Carlos Bunge, an adviser to the manager of the Argentinean National Antarctic Program, told Eos from on board the Argentinean icebreaker that the research team on Monday was being transferred to the Gould by Zodiac. The plan is for the Gould to then return to Punta Arenas, Chile, the home port for the ship’s Antarctic operations. Bunge, who has been involved with coordinating science operations with logistical assistance, stressed that this was not a rescue operation. “It was an assistance. They needed to be evacuated from the island. We helped them to get out before the conditions got worse, but there was no risk for human life during the operation. It was just preventing a problematic situation in the future,” Bunge said.

“International cooperation is one of the most important objectives of the Antarctic treaty,” he added. “We all have the same spirit here of research and cooperation.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), U.S. Scientists safely retrieved from ice-bound Antarctic island, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO094755. Published on 13 March 2018.
© 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0