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Icebergs, blizzards and a creaking ship: Antarctic explorers' tense wait for rescue

After a trip to Mawson Station, an icon of Antarctic exploration, a vessel and its scientific team from Australia became boxed in by ice. Now, all they can do is wait for an icebreaker to arrive and cut them free. NBC's Martin Fletcher reports.

Even for intrepid Antarctic explorers, being trapped for days in sea ice in one of the most hostile and remote regions on Earth is a serious matter.

"When we first got stuck in the ice, we could see icebergs on the horizon, and that was disconcerting because you can only see 20 percent of them and they move not just in relation to the wind, but what the current is doing under the water," expedition leader professor Chris Turney told NBC News via satellite phone.

The MV Akademik Shokalskiy and the 74 crew, scientists and volunteers on board, looked set to be rescued by an ice-breaking rescue vessel Friday. They have been locked for three days in ice more than 1,700 miles south of Australia.

Although morale has remained high, the three-day wait has been fraught with concerns about icebergs, high winds, and the growing distance between them and open water, Tunrey said.

"The wind conditions have also been putting a lot of strain on one side of the ship -- we've had blizzards and wind speeds of up to 70 kilometers per hour," Turney added. "The build-up of ice on one side has given it quite a tilt, of four or five degrees. This might not sound a lot but you can really feel it when walking down the corridors."

He said although the team has been able to carry on with some of its scientific work while waiting for three ice-breaking ships headed toward their location, their situation has not been without its complications.

Sea ice can build up at a fast rate because of the high winds in Antarctica. When Turney and his team first realized there were no open channels left through the ice, they were only about two nautical miles (about 2.3 miles) from open water.

But before the first ice-breaking ship, the Chinese vessel Snow Dragon, arrived on Friday more than 20 miles of ice had built up around them.

"At the moment Snow Dragon is opening up a channel and, hoping for the best, that will clear a path towards us," Turney said. “If not, it will have to circle us in a doughnut shape."

Turney and his team of scientists and volunteers set out on the voyage to retrace the steps of Australian geologist Douglas Mawson, who travelled to the then-unknown Antarctic in 1911.

The team has been able to hunker down during their ordeal in a tough Soviet-era ship built in Finland in the 1980s. Turney said it was "humbling" to think how Mawson faced the same conditions more than 100 years ago.

"Embarking on this journey when he did was going into un-mapped territory -- it was like going into space," Turney said. "It’s very humbling to think about."