CANBERRA, Australia — All 52 passengers rescued after being trapped for more than a week on an icebound Russian research ship in the Antarctic were aboard an Australian icebreaker slowly cracking through heavy sea ice Friday toward open water after a dramatic rescue by a Chinese helicopter.
A spot of clear weather allowed the multinational rescue operation, after blinding snow, strong winds and thick sea ice forced rescuers to turn back time and again.
The twin-rotor helicopter — its red and yellow contrasting with the ice and snow — took seven hours to carry the 26 scientists and 26 tourists from the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy to an Australian icebreaker, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s (AMSA) Rescue Coordination Centre, which oversaw the rescue.
Earlier, the passengers had linked arms and stomped out a landing site in the snow next to the Russian ship for the helicopter, which is based on a Chinese icebreaker, the Snow Dragon.
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The rescue came after days of failed attempts to reach the vessel, which has been trapped since Christmas Eve.
The icebreaker Aurora Australis will take the passengers to the Australian island state of Tasmania, a journey expected to take two weeks.
“I think everyone is relieved and excited to be going on to the Australian icebreaker and then home,” expedition leader Chris Turney said by satellite phone from the Antarctic.
Sydney resident Joanne Sim, one of the paying tourists, wept as she boarded the Australian icebreaker. She said the passengers had spent time watching movies and playing games.
“It really has been an emotional roller-coaster,” she told a The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reporter.
The 22 crew members of the Akademik Shokalskiy stayed with the icebound vessel, which is not in danger of sinking and has enough supplies on board to last for weeks. They will wait until the ice that surrounds the ship breaks up.
“It’s quite uncertain how long it will take the Shokalskiy to be able to break through the ice,” AMSA Emergency Response Division manager John Young said.
The cost of the rescue would be carried by the owners of the ships involved and their insurers, in accordance with international conventions on sea rescues, Young said.
The Akademik Shokalskiy, which left New Zealand on Nov. 28, got stuck after a blizzard pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place near Cape de la Motte, about 1,700 miles south of Hobart, Tasmania, and 115 miles east of the French Dumont d’Urville Station.
Three icebreakers tried to try to crack through the ice surrounding the Russian ship but all failed, forced to retreat to open water by high winds and snow.
While scientists expect and observe more extreme weather with global warming, some say it’s not fair to blame the summer blizzard that trapped the ship on climate change.
University of Colorado ice scientist Waleed Abdalati, NASA’s former chief scientist, cautioned, as do many scientists, that while researchers can spot a trend in extreme weather, they can’t immediately associate an individual event — such as a blizzard — with changing climate.
When scientists do attribute an individual extreme weather event to climate change, it is usually more than a year later after numerous computer-model simulations and then published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Also, Antarctica, which is more governed by localized wind circulation and other characteristics, “is kind of its own beast,” Abdalati said.
“Antarctica feels the changing climate a little differently than the rest of the world. I myself can’t point to the weather and say ‘It’s part of a changing climate.’ ” Abdalati said.
The scientific team on board the Russian vessel had been re-creating Australian explorer and geologist Douglas Mawson’s 1911-13 voyage to Antarctica.