Comparison of the Chinese and Australian ice breakers – MV Xue Long and RSV Aurora Australis

The background to this is in my article two down on December 26th, 2013 – The Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) is delayed onboard the MV Akademik Shokalskiy which has issued a distress signal while beset by ice
Today we are told by AMSA that the RSV Aurora Australis is due tonight after the Chinese ice breaker MV Xue long could not break through to free the Russian registered cruise ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy which has been locked in ice since early morning on the 25th Dec.
I think a salient point is that the Aurora Australis weighs in at 8,158 tons displacement compared to 21,025 for the Xue long.

I would be amazed if, in a fair contest with both trying to clear a path through equivalent ice – the Australian ship could break a path through ice that blocks the much heavier Xue Long.

But maybe we will see tonight – perhaps the Aurora Australis has experience on its side.
The main thing is that AMSA can ensure that people on the Russian ship can be extricated to safety – whatever means have to be used.

43 thoughts on “Comparison of the Chinese and Australian ice breakers – MV Xue Long and RSV Aurora Australis”

  1. From the expedition leader’s Linked In profile: “Professor Chris Turney is an Australian and British Earth scientist. He currently holds a prestigious Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship at the University of New South Wales.
    At 39 years young, he was described by The Saturday Times as ‘the new David Livingstone’. Chris is the inventor and a founding Director of Carbonscape, a New Zealand carbon refining company that offers a global solution for mitigating the effects of climate change;
    In 2009, it was selected as the Judges Top Choice in the Financial Times Climate Change Challenge and in 2012 came runner up in the International Dutch Postcode Lottery Green Challenge.
    Chris leads a large research team at the University of New South Wales and is passionate about science communication. He has published numerous scientific papers and given frequent media interviews, thanks to his infectious enthusiasm for working out what happened when.”

  2. The AAE team made a 140 km Argo trip to the Mawson huts point. This endeavour likely had a largely symbolic value of repeating Mawson’s earlier trip. The team of 11 made the trip via vehicles and not by sea because the approach was blocked by the Mertz glacier iceberg breaking-off and surrounding ice formations which have changed configuration since 2010. The AAE team knew this ( but the trip was nevertheless undertaken.

  3. Agree there is a lot of symbolic Shub –
    Fairfax has an interview yesterday with the Captain of the Aurora Australis –
    There is a link to the video at this story – Rescue of iced-in ship could cost owners a packet
    No fresh news I can see near 5am Monday on how the Aurora Australis is progressing.
    9am update – Map of ships positions made at

    Remember the ships only update at odd times.

  4. A statement from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition:

    We’re stuck in our own experiment. We came to Antarctica to study how one of the biggest icebergs in the world has altered the system by trapping ice. We followed Sir Douglas Mawson’s footsteps into Commonwealth Bay, and are now ourselves trapped by ice surrounding our ship.

    Sea ice is disappearing due to climate change, but here ice is building up. We have found this has changed the system on many levels. The increase in sea ice has freshened the seawater below, so much so that you can almost drink it. This change will have impacts on the deep ocean circulation.

    Underwater, forests of algae are dying as sea-ice blocks the light. Who can say what effects the regional circulation changes may have on the ice sheet of the Antarctic plateau, or whether the low number of seals suggests changes to their population.

    Note the multiple deceptions.

  5. According to these maps of the ships positions – Aurora Australis is making progress and is now almost as close to the Akademik Shokalskiy as the Chinese ice breaker Xue long got.

  6. Don’t invest in Carbonscape.
    Firstly, there is nothing new above converting carbon dioxide to something else, usually formic acid or methanol. It just takes lots of (expensive) energy, as has been known for 50 years or more.
    Secondly, Tim Flannery is a director. That alone would make a company a dodgy proposition.

  7. Updated at 1650AEDST – It is clear the Aurora Australis has pulled back to the south east away from the Akademik Shokalskiy towards the coast.
    Probably heading out on the track they came in on earlier today.

  8. kuhnkat, Polar Star not heading to rescue area. See part of story from today’s CNN News: A U.S. Coast Guard ship, the Polar Star, is in the general area but would likely take two weeks to reach the Akademik Shokalskiy.

    Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Paul Rhynard said the Polar Star has not been asked to help.

  9. Thank you Gina.

    “… the Polar Star, is in the general area but would likely take two weeks to reach the Akademik Shokalskiy.”


    Interesting definition of general area!!

    Looking at the hull designs I think answers the question as to why a lighter ship might work better. The Chinese ship has a more rounded bow that looks like it is designed to slip up on top of the ice and break it from the weight whereas the lighter ships have sharper bows used to crack the ice more like an ice pick.

  10. kuhnkatkat:
    Are you related to kuhnkat?
    Re ice-breakers; perhaps the sharper bow was the reason the Aurora Australis was described as a “heavy duty” icebreaker i.e. before it failed to get to the ‘holiday cruise’ ship.

  11. “Another option for rescue lays with the huge American icebreaker, the Polar Star, which is currently en route to the Ross Sea from Seattle. It had been due to travel via Sydney but it has now been ordered to sail directly to its final destination. If it was called upon to assist in the rescue effort, it could get to the sea ice edge near the Shokalskiy in eight or nine days.”

    As usual we can’t get a consistent story from the various media.

    Graeme, yup, that was I.

  12. No news from AAD since the 26th.
    AMSA just put out their 8th update.
    This amazing graphic of global winds shows conditions are mainly easterly around Commonwealth Bay – exactly south of Hobart. You can move your view of Earth with a mouse click & drag. Strong wind system beginning to impact on the UK. I was surprised at how dominantly wind is an oceanic phenomenon.
    The Polar Star left Honolulu 18 Dec on a course 235° – which is in general direction of Micronesia.
    Now AMSA has settled on a helicopter transfer it is a wait for suitable conditions. The saga has a life of its own now. The crew waiting on the trapped ship will be different news drama and what happens in the event the hull is damaged.
    I looked through all the AAD news releases for 2013 and there was not one mention of The Australasian Antarctic Expedition. I did see this –
    The Gillard Government is taking initial steps towards a new Antarctic icebreaker to replace the ageing Research and Supply Vessel Aurora Australis.
    A five year plan to replace Aurora Australis.

  13. One overseas report states that the the expedition is the most expensive the Australian Government has ever funded to the Frozen South.

    Can anyone confirm this is correct?

    If so when was the expenditure authorized and by whom?

  14. I hope there is an enquiry into this farce, which will have thrown a major spanner into resupply of Antarctic bases, already having problems with increasing sea ice and an airstrip unusable half the time.

  15. Dr K.A. Rodgers:
    rest assured that the Australian Taxpayer will get the bill for this. If it is necessary for us to pay to rescue those foreign fools who try to sail a small boat single handed through stormy waters, then a whole crate of fools, many from Australia, won’t come cheap.

    If the ship gets crushed by the ice, then the ship’s master will struggle to retain his ticket. He may claim that he had no experience in antarctic waters and relied on advice from the scientists, who should have known the danger from their connections to the internet, but I think that would avail him little.

  16. We have now reached the stage of sparse and contradictory “reports” on what is actually happening. The embedded “meeja” on board the stuck ship cannot be trusted to supply accurate, factual information. The MSM have not covered themselves in glory, as is their wont

    The only trustworthy reports, and most irregular and sparse, come from the captains of the various ships

  17. The Australasian Antarctic Expedition looks to have been mainly funded through universities – I read where U of NSW put in $1.5mill and the AAE seems to have been organised there. The plans jelled in May last year going by their media.
    Clearly Australian taxpayers fund universities – ditto Australian Antarctic Division AAD who run the Aurora Australis – so ultimately taxpayers are in the gun one way and another for this entire circus. I understand some on the AAE paid privately for their places but the numbers are not clear. I am hoping there will be an inquiry that uncovers and makes public all relevant facts to hopefully make it less likely that such a damaging disaster can ever happen again.
    BTW the US Coast Guard ice breaker Polar Star has Displacement: 10,863 long tons (11,037 t) (standard) so is not that much larger than the Aurora Australis whereas the Xue Long is twice the displacement.
    I saw that report by BBC that the Xue Long “may now be trapped”. I thought that unlikely but have emailed AMSA to see what they know.
    For those interested – the AAD budget is ~$169million for 2013-14; down from $183mill in 2012-13. 395 staff down from 415.

    Australia’s Antarctic program objectives are based on the region’s strategic,
    scientific, environmental and economic importance for Australia. They include:
    – conducting scientific research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean that supports national policy and environmental management priorities, in particular taking advantage of the special opportunities the Antarctic offers for globally significant and coordinated research;
    – preserving our sovereignty over the Australian Antarctic Territory, including our sovereign rights over adjacent offshore areas;
    – protecting the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean environment, having regard to its special qualities and effects on our region;
    – contributing to maintaining Antarctica’s freedom from strategic and/or political confrontation;
    – being informed about and able to influence developments in a region geographically proximate to Australia; and
    – facilitating the deriving of any reasonable economic benefits from living and non-living resources of the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean (excluding
    deriving benefits from mining and oil drilling in the Antarctic Treaty area).

    I am sure that privately AAD would be far from happy at the waste of their time and resources in rescuing AAE.

  18. Posted 0425AEDST 2 Jan – ABC radio news at 0400 carried zero about the Akademik Shokalskiy situation. I notice that for the first time AMSA has gone a day without an update.
    Amazing news on WUWT recounting how the ship has requested better weather forecasting and by a chain of phone calls this gets to Anthony Watts.
    I wonder if our Australian MSM will report that.
    Talk on WUWT about the Polar Star being several days away – quite near Sydney per –

  19. I see there is a new “shiptrack” update in the last hour, with the Aurora Australis now about 30 kms north-north-east of the Akademik Shokalsky. Still no update from AMSA or the Fairfax people for nearly 2 days. Such silence is hardly reassuring. Given the dangers there should be updates at least every day. Loved ones have a right to know exactly what is being planned and what is going on down there, not be left hanging for days after an abandoned rescue with vague statements about helicopter sorties that then don’t happen.

    Warwick I noticed you quoted the AAD’s mandate, starting with “conducting scientific research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean that supports national policy”. Dunno about you but I would never trust any research that was carried out to “support national policy”.

  20. 0835AEDST 2 Jan – I see the Aurora Australis latest sitrep says they are getting closer to the Xue Long – be nice if they invited top people from the Xue Long over for a tour of AA. Chew the fat Captain to Captain.
    The AA webcam has not been updated since the 29th.
    AMSA has just put out their update 9 saying the helicopter rescue will start soon and will take pretty much all day.
    AMSA also say the AAE people will get a trip to Casey so the AA can complete unloading – then to Hobart.
    Agree Dave that the AAD blurb about research priorities jarred with me too.

  21. Posted 1305AEDT
    12.30pm AEDT: 2nd January 2014 from AMSA
    Rescue operations delayed by ice conditions
    The Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s (AMSA) Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC Australia) has been advised this morning that sea ice conditions in the area are likely to delay today’s planned rescue of passengers from the MV Akademik Shokalskiy.
    It is now likely the rescue will not go ahead today.
    AMSA understands that current sea ice conditions prevent the barge from Aurora Australis from reaching the Chinese vessel Xue Long (Snow Dragon) and a rescue may not be possible today.
    The Xue Long’s helicopter is unable to land on the Aurora Australis due to load rating restrictions. It is not safe to land the helicopter next to Aurora Australis at this time.
    The preferred and safest option at this stage is to ultimately transfer the passengers onto Aurora Australis.
    All passengers on board the MV Akademik Shokalskiy are currently safe and well. The preferred option is to wait for conditions that will allow the rescue to be completed in a single operation to reduce unnecessary risk.
    Alternative measures to complete the rescue operation are now being investigated by AMSA and the ships involved.
    This rescue is a complex operation involving a number of steps. Operations in Antarctica are all weather and ice dependent and conditions can change rapidly. The priority is to ensure the safety of all involved.
    RCC Australia continues to be in regular contact with all vessels involved and continues to monitor the situation. The vessels involved are also in close contact with each other via VHF radio.

    Not easy getting all ducks in a row.
    OK now let me see if I have this correct –
    [current sea ice conditions prevent the barge from Aurora Australis from reaching the Chinese vessel Xue Long (Snow Dragon)]
    I understand that in view the barge is only a light craft.
    But in that case how about the Aurora Australis clears a track near to the Xue Long (Snow Dragon). Then they could dispense with the barge and pick up people off the ice via a gangway or use the barge for a short ferry trip.
    Or conversely the Xue Long (Snow Dragon) clears a path so as to be closer to the Aurora Australis for the transfer.
    If none of this is possible you have to ask what is possible.

  22. It seems obvious you split the operation in 2. After the helicopter rescue, both ships head for open water then do the boat transfer.

    I think there could be rather more to this story. Perhaps the Chinese got cold feet about landing their large heavy helicopter on sea ice of unknown characteristics.

  23. Specifications (Ka-27)

    Crew: 1-3, plus 2-3 specialists (Ka-27)
    Capacity: 4,000 kg (8,818 lb) payload (Ka-32), or up to 16 troops (Ka-29).
    Length: 11.3 m (37 ft 1 in)
    Height: 5.5 m (18 ft 1 in)
    Empty weight: 6,500 kg (14,330 lb)
    Gross weight: 11,000 kg (24,251 lb)

  24. From Dr. Peacock on the Antarctic party ship:

    “”Right now its howling outside and miserable. Also it seems that the Chinese ship is having great difficulty moving out of the pack ice and into open water which must happen before we can be moved by their helicopter.”

    Seems someone has noticed the Chinese ship isn’t moving much.

  25. 1710AEDT 2 Jan 14 Fairfax now report the Xue Long is stuck in ice – confirming what the BBC thought from 2 days ago. That amazes me and AMSA are not saying it.
    Philip – I read somewhere that the Snow Eagle KA32 helicopter is not equipped with floats – I do not know what effect that has on their rating to operate over water.
    There seems to be so much ice – I wonder what is impossible about the AAE using their ATV’s to drive to the Aurora Australis – or just plain walking. Holler out for the gangway.
    Just to give you confidence in the helicopter doing over half a dozen round trips under pressure – Snow Eagle crashes in the Antarctic – 12 Dec 2011 – from two years ago.

  26. 0630AEDT 3 Jan 14 – I hope AMSA and all involved are counting their blessings that they got such a quick spell of blue sky late yesterday to assist the helicopter rescue. BTW – what odd little narrow set wheels on the KA32 – why not skids or skis ?
    So the ice near Aurora Australis was solid enough that the barge transfer was not needed.
    Fascinating to see if today the Aurora Australis departs leaving the Xue Long stuck in ice as it was reported yesterday.
    Will also be interesting to see the tone of output from the AAE now they are in the hands of AAD until mid Jan.
    AAD must be sensitive to the need for damage control.
    It will also be interesting to see how concerned the MSM are about the crew stuck on their ship.

  27. Our intrepid “surviving breeding pairs” having checked out the Antarctic climate and apparently, having found it intolerable, decided to move on. As former Gaia scientist James Lovelock once wrote of “global warming”:

    “billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable”

    The question is where to next, the Arctic perhaps, one wonders who will be left with the bill for their next misadventure? No prizes for correct answers.

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