Mission to Antarctic Ice Factory Ends in Fire

A dramatic engine-room fire and explosion on a research vessel has forced scientists to abort a $2 million Antarctic expedition. Last Wednesday's blaze aboard the Aurora Australis, a ship chartered by the Australian Antarctic Division, destroyed the ship's main engine and damaged the second engine. No one was injured.

The voyage was to have been the first wintertime expedition to the Mertz Glacier polynya, a puzzling seasonal "lake" just off the Adélie Coast that remains liquid even though it is surrounded by ice for 6 months a year. Covering 23,000 square kilometers--nearly the area of Lake Erie--the polynya leaks heat from the ocean into the atmosphere and acts as an "ice factory." Scientists believe that the new ice is constantly pushed away from shore by the strong prevailing winds.

The water left uncovered is exceptionally salty and cold and tends to sink. This helps set up a "conveyor belt" of circulation that transports the Antarctic water to the depths of most oceans and ultimately shuttles heat between the hemispheres.

As the first winter expedition to the polynya, the oceanographers and meteorologists had planned to probe the water's sinking and ice-making using everything from atmospheric balloons and underwater radar to 15 whimsically named "Spice Buoys" that would have followed ice floes as they were blown or swept away from the polynya. Biologists had planned to study the area as a possible "oasis" where whales, birds, and seals might seek food during the winter.

Instead, the scientific program of the voyage is nearly a total loss, says Australian Antarctic Division information officer Bridget Payne. After drifting for 3 days, engineers managed to start the auxiliary engine, and the ship is now limping back to its home port of Hobart, Tasmania. Payne says studying polynya remains a top priority for the team. "We are confident that we will be able to repeat the experiment, perhaps next year," says chief researcher Ian Allison, an oceanographer at the University of Tasmania.