Australia mounts rescue of ill Antarctic worker with icebreaker, helicopters


Australia’s Antarctic research program said it successfully evacuated an “unwell expeditioner” from its research station on the southernmost continent.

In a complex operation in the early days of the Southern Hemisphere’s spring — with temperatures of minus-10.9 degrees Celsius (about 12 degrees Fahrenheit) on Tuesday — the Australian Antarctic Program deployed its RSV Nuyina icebreaker from Hobart on the island state of Tasmania, where the program is based.

“It’s the earliest we’ve ever gone to an Antarctic station,” the program’s acting general manager of operations, Robb Clifton, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

The ship traveled more than 1,860 miles — about the length of the drive from D.C. to Albuquerque — breaking through ice until it got within 78 nautical miles of Australia’s Casey research station on Sunday, the program said in an emailed statement.

From there, two helicopters took off from the RSV Nuyina, making the nearly hour-long flight to the outpost, where they “collected the expeditioner” and brought them to the ship. Onboard, the person received medical care by “polar medicine doctors” and hospital staff from Hobart, the program said.

It declined to share more details about the expeditioner and their condition, citing privacy concerns, although it said the person has a “developing medical condition and needs specialist assessment and care in Australia.”

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Clifton told the ABC that while the evacuation took place “just a day or two after the official end of winter,” it was “still very much winter in Antarctica.”

He said the program, which is a government entity, had contacted other countries’ Antarctic programs, including that of the United States, to inquire about the location of their icebreakers in case it was necessary to use them. But in the end, he told the ABC, “we were able to do it solely with Australian resources.”

The Australian Antarctic Program typically uses long-range aircraft to shuttle people and equipment between Hobart and a small airfield near the Casey research station in the summer months, according to its website. Casey is one of three year-round stations operated by Australia and is the closest permanent station to the country, “perched on the edge of the massive Antarctic ice cap,” about 2,400 miles south of the city of Perth in Western Australia, according to the program’s website.

In summertime, as many as 100 expeditioners can be based at each station, though in the winter the group shrinks to 15 to 20 people.

The icebreaker is on its way back to Hobart, where it is expected to arrive next week, depending on weather.


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