Russian scientists await rescue mission after 'wall of ice' destroys base in Arctic

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The Independent Online

Rescuers in helicopters and ski planes have been preparing a mission to evacuate 12 Russian scientists stranded on a crumbling ice floe after most of their research station was swallowed up by the freezing Arctic seas on Wednesday.

Rescuers in helicopters and ski planes have been preparing a mission to evacuate 12 Russian scientists stranded on a crumbling ice floe after most of their research station was swallowed up by the freezing Arctic seas on Wednesday.

All 12 were said to be safe and huddling together for warmth in two surviving huts after "a giant wall of ice" crushed their floating installation and carried away four of the station's six buildings.

The scientists, all experienced Arctic hands who had been living on the ice for nearly a year, recording weather conditions and studying climate change, had to scramble frantically to save themselves and some of their equipment as their station collapsed and began slipping into the water.

"Everyone is in a good mood, everything is all right," the expedition's leader, Vladimir Koshelyev, told Russian TV by radio link. "We have supplies for about five days." Russia's deputy speaker of parliament, Artur Chilingarov, a former Arctic explorer, was shown on TV assuring the castaways that all measures would be taken to save them. "Don't worry, we'll see you return to the motherland soon," he told them.

The North Pole-32 station has drifted nearly 3,000km (1,800 miles) around the Pole since it was set up last April to study climate change in the Arctic.

The scientists, who had been planning to end their work on 20 March, may have received an unwelcome lesson in global warming when the ice sheet they were living on began cracking up two weeks before and drifting further south than expected.

Russia's most famous northern explorer, Vladimir Sokolov, told state TV there was "no cause for panic" because "events like this are the norm in Arctic latitudes, and these people are trained to handle it".

Russian border guards and emergency service workers have mobilised several aircraft, including a heavy Mi-26 helicopter and two ski-equipped An-26 transport planes. They will fly them this weekend from the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Arctic Ocean's Svalbard archipelago, about 700km away from the last known site of the wrecked station. An official of the Emergency Services Ministry said that teams were hoping to reach the researchers during the weekend, but was unsure whether it would be possible to land on the disintegrating ice floe.

Gales have made efforts to drop supplies to the stranded group impossible, but winds were forecast to drop by tomorrow. The air temperature in the area was minus 20C, and should pose no problem, rescue workers said. Staff at a hospital in the mining town of Longyearbyen were on alert.

North Pole-32 was Russia's first venture of its type since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A decade of harsh budget-cutting has left Russia, the world's largest northern nation, with almost no scientific presence in the Arctic.

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