CHINA - The trapped Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, warmed up its engine and widened a path through the ice on Monday, preparing to break out of frozen floes in Antarctica, as weather conditions may turn favourable before Wednesday.
"The path is up to 80 meters wide and 1 kilometer long, which will help the vessel in breaking free," Qu Tanzhou, director of the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration under the State Oceanic Administration, said on Monday.
Although the southeast wind did not turn into a favourable west wind as expected on Monday, the heavy snow of the past few days turned to sleet, which melted parts of the ice floes, Qu said.
"It's good news!"
Zhang Lin, a meteorologist from the emergency team established in Beijing for the rescue, said the west wind, expected between Monday evening and Wednesday morning, will provide favourable weather conditions for Xuelong and will likely loosen the surrounding floes.
"The window for the vessel to sail out is quite small, which means Xuelong needs to be ready at any moment before Wednesday," Qu said.
Wang Jianzhong, captain of the Xuelong, told a Xinhua reporter onboard that the vessel has been surrounded by swiftly gathering floes, with ice three to four meters thick in some places. The vessel can break ice up to 1.1 m deep.
"The ship is about 14 km from the nearby open water," Wang said.
If the Xuelong breaks through the stretch of thick ice floes of about 3.7 km long, it sail out of the ice toward the open water, Wang said.
The vessel currently has enough food supplies for the 101 onboard until April, fresh water supplies for a month and oil for at least four months of sailing, according to Qu.
Those aboard are safe and in a relaxed mood, with entertainment facilities such as ping-pong tables, a gym and a theatre, according to Xinhua News Agency.
But Qu emphasised that there are uncertainties about the weather in Antarctica and its influence on the floes.
"It is unknown whether the expected west wind will be strong enough to loosen the floes surrounding the ship and how the weather will affect the water currents and icebergs," Qu said.
The icebreaker became trapped in thick sea ice on Friday, just one day after its helicopter Xueying 12 - or Snow Eagle 12 - helicopter evacuated all 52 passengers from the stranded Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy to the Australian supply ship Aurora Australis. The Russian ship had been stranded in Antarctica for 10 days, and the rescue was completed on Friday morning.
Aurora Australis is taking the passengers to the Australian island state of Tasmania, and is expected to arrive by mid-January after refueling at Australia's Casey base in Antarctica.
However, after the rescue, Xuelong became trapped in ice, and the US Coast Guard's icebreaker Polar Star is on its way to assist the ice-bound Russian vessel and Xuelong. It is expected to arrive on Sunday.
Qu hoped Xuelong will break free on its own and continue the scientific research and site inspection for the country's new Antarctic base.
He added it was not yet known what impact the incident would have on scientific programs.
President Xi Jinping urged an all-out effort to ensure the safety of the Xuelong crew on Friday.
Xuelong left Shanghai in early November on China's 30th Antarctic expedition, which is expected to last 155 days, and involve scientific research, construction of the country's new research base and site inspection for a new base.