"Our highest priority is safety of life at sea, which is why we are assisting in breaking a navigational path for both of these vessels," said Coast Guard Pacific Area Commander Vice Admiral Paul Zukunft.
There are more than 120 crew members aboard the two trapped vessels, but they are well-provisioned and in no immediate danger.
How did this mess happen? In celebration of an 100th anniversary of an Antarctic journey, the Russian research ship Akademik Shokalskiy left New Zealand on Nov. 28. It became trapped on Christmas Eve, 100 nautical miles east of French Antarctic station Dumont d'Urville and around 1,500 nautical miles south of Tasmania. The 52 passengers kept themselves busy with with movies, classes in knot tying, languages, yoga, and photography, and celebrated the New Year's Eve with dinner, drinks, and singing. Passengers, scientists, and journalists were evacuated from the ship via helicopter on January 2 with the help of the Chinese ship Xue Long, also an ice breaker.
But the Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, reported on Friday that it, too, had been clogged by ice. The Coast Guard responded to the request for assistance after Australia's Maritime Safety Authority (ASMA) determined there was "sufficient concern that the vessels may not be able to free themselves from the ice."
The Chinese and Russian governments also requested the U.S. assistance.
What comes next: According to ASMA, it will take the Polar Star a week to reach the trapped ships. The Polar Star is one of the largest vessels in the Coast Guard and recently completed a three-year, $90 million overhaul. It is also the Coast Guard's only active heavy polar ice breaker, able to break six feet of ice at a speed of three knots, producing up to 75,000 horsepower.
Say what you want about United States' position as a global superpower — I know I certainly have — but it's pretty special when America can use its sophisticated resources to help other countries, especially when caught in an incredibly cold pickle.