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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Stranded at Antarctic Station

More than 100 Russian scientists are stranded in the frozen continent of Antarctica, as their replacements bask in the South African sun waiting for funding for the final stretch of their journey from St. Petersburg.


"We're stuck," Alexander Kozlovsky, head of the expedition on board the Akademik Fyodorov, which is docked in Cape Town, said Friday in a telephone interview. "It's all very well to sit on the beach, but winter is already on its way. We are going to be working under the worst conditions and the longer we wait, the greater the risk."


Kozlovsky said that in a few weeks time, the temperatures in Antarctica would reach minus 25 degrees Celsius with wind speeds of more than 100 kilometers an hour and no more than two or three hours of light per day.


And as the 120 scientists at the Russian Antarctic bases of Bellingshausen, Novolazarevskaya, Mirnaya and Molodyozhnaya enter their sixth week of waiting to leave, they are already running short of food and fuel, which is to be Kozlovsky said he was unsure how much food and fuel remained at the four Russian stations, adding that he thinks of his colleagues every time he goes to the beach.


Meanwhile, the 130 Antarctic-bound scientists cool their heels in Cape Town.


"It's about 25 degrees Celsius here. We drink beer, and we go on excursions, and we catch fish and eat and enjoy the beautiful weather," he said. "But my heart goes out for our friends on the station who haven't seen their families for more than a year."


Their plight is only the latest incident of cash-strapped Russian groups being stranded overseas, often depending on the charity of their foreign hosts. Those stranded have ranged from circus troupes to sailors and tour groups.


The replacement crew has been stuck in Cape Town for 12 days because of a litany of errors in the Finance Ministry's delivery of $900,000 to the mission, according to Kozlovsky. The expedition expected to leave Cape Town about a week ago, but the money still has not arrived and is not expected for at least another week, according to Vasily Zusman, an official at the Arctic and Antarctic Institute in St. Petersburg. "My biggest fear now is that we won't be able to deliver the people or the cargo and that we'll have to close the station for the winter," Kozlovsky said.


"It would be a tragedy," he said, "We've had expeditions there since 1956. We have a cemetery in Mirnaya with the bodies of about 50 people who have died for these projects and now there's a risk that we'll have to leave the base unattended and turn around and go home."


If the Akademik Fyodorov does not start the two-week voyage to Antarctica very soon, its crew will have no means of delivering its cargo.


By mid-April the shores of Novolazarevskaya station are frozen for about 200 kilometers out to sea, with the area and thickness of the ice growing every day. If ice prevents the vessel from reaching land, cargo cannot be delivered, and the scientists would have to be flown from their bases to the vessel, Kozlovsky said.


By the beginning of May, when the Antarctic sun stops rising altogether, the journey will become impossible.


Jonathan Shanklin of the British Antarctic Survey said in a telephone interview from Cambridge, England: "The waves get bigger every day and the wind has more power to damage the ship. I've seen some pretty horrendous gales even in summer but in winter there are also 'bergy bits' -- lumps of ice that are only about a meter wide but that weigh more than a metric ton, and can easily pierce a ship."


As days grow shorter the "bergy bits" get increasingly hard to spot, while the chances of being trapped by ice, which is constantly forming, steadily grow, said Shanklin, who has been to the continent nine times.


Originally the Akademik Fyodorov was supposed to leave St. Petersburg in late December, and arrive in Cape Town in late January, Zusman said. But financial problems slowed down the vessel's reconstruction. When the final payment failed to arrive, the boat finally disembarked without it Feb. 27.


"They had no choice," Zusman said Thursday in a telephone interview from St. Petersburg. "The Finance Ministry promised to send the money around the time the team was scheduled to arrive in Cape Town April 1. The money was finally paid on April 9, but instead of going straight to Cape Town, it went to the St. Petersburg City Treasury. The million dollar question is 'Why?'"


The Finance Ministry declined to respond to faxed questions Thursday and Friday. An official at the St. Petersburg Treasury said the money had been sent to the institute in the northern city, but Zusman said he had not seen evidence of its arrival.


"The teams there are getting really tired," Zusman said. "It's cold and they're tired and they haven't seen their families for more than a year and they really want to go home. The atmosphere there is getting worse and worse every day."


The scientists at all four bases are collecting meteorological data as well as ozone measurements, information on global warming and geological research.


"It would be very sad internationally if these stations have to close for a season," Shanklin said. "They provide valuable data that's used worldwide."