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No Aliens Required

antarctic rescueHow about a story idea?

A team of climate scientists charter a Russian ice-strengthened research ship and cruise to the mysterious continent of Antarctica. Their goal is simple: repeat a battery of tests first carried out by explorers 100 years prior, to determine the true environmental impacts of a century of human industrialization.

But when their vessel arrives in the icy waters of our planet’s southern pole, the ship and its crew discover something unexpected, which imperils not only their expedition, but their very lives…

This might as well be the synopsis of a modern science fiction-horror thriller. Perhaps The Thing?

It could also be someone’s attempt to make a recent hit sci-fi film more contemporary, so that it might draw audiences who don’t normally go in for spaceships (or who don’t understand the inexplicable inability to run only in straight lines):

But, of course, it’s neither of these things. Instead, it’s the setup to a very real, far more serious drama that recently played out near Commonwealth Bay, in Antarctic waters. The scientists in question are from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013-2014, and they chartered Akademik Shokalskiy in their endeavor to repeat the experiments conducted by Douglas Mawson. Things were going well for the expedition… until they ran head-first into impassable ice, and became trapped.

What followed was a widely-reported expedition including the Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon, and the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis. Beating their way through the dense Antarctic flows, both ships got near enough that the Chinese vessel could get the research team off Shokalskiy by helicopter, and put them aboard Aurora for a return to New Zealand.

So far so good. Except that Snow Dragon soon found herself jammed up by ice as well. By bravely forcing her way closer to Shokalskiy, the Chinese ship took a considerable risk, and now has been trapped for her trouble. The solution: the Americans sent a vastly more powerful breaker, Polar Star, to free both ships.

The situation fortunately ended in an anticlimactic fashion: winds shifted, and allowed both trapped vessels to break free into open water. It was a delightfully uneventful end to a situation that could easily have turned bad –– even without the presence of aliens. Being stuck might sound to us like an inconvenience, and perhaps in this case it was little more… but I can’t help but thinking things could easily have turned for the worse.

See, though I’ve never been to Antarctica, I come from a rock that knows something about death on the ice. Politically incorrect though it might appear (and good for the cod stocks though it was), the seal hunt in Newfoundland often put poor, ill-equipped men out onto North Atlantic ice flows in brutal conditions.

As one of Jacqui’s favorite books recounts in brutally vivid and truly excellent detail, a no matter how experienced on the ice one might be, disaster was never far away. A century ago this year, confusion and miscommunication cost seventy-seven b’ys their lives –– some fathers and sons literally freezing solid as they clung together for warmth, others freezing as they knelt to pray. It was a Newfoundland tragedy perhaps second only to the loss of the RNR at Beaumont Hamel:

I’m sure Shokalskiy and Snow Dragon are fine ships with experienced crews, but anyone who knows anything about ship stories, and knows anything about ice, takes nothing for granted in a situation such as this. Most times they end without incident, because those involved have both skill and fortune on their side… but when they go wrong, we all end up hearing about it. Indeed, the outcome is often so disastrous movies don’t even get made, perhaps because they’d be too dire.

When ships are operating in Earth’s most extreme conditions, no aliens are required to heighten the drama. The lives of those crews are at far greater risk than most lives were in North America during this week’s polar vortex, and though we can be grateful that this scientific endeavor was retrieved without any sort of disaster, we must be mindful that, however confident we are in human abilities on this planet, there are still places on Earth where simply surviving can be the source of great drama –– even when people are working a strong ship.

But the good news for Shokalskiy, Snow Dragon, Aurora Australis, and Polar Star, is that none of them had to play a starring role in an Earthbound version of Gravity. Clear sailing to them all.