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Russian Scientists Rescued from Crumbling Arctic Ice Floe - 2004-03-06

A rescue operation to evacuate a team of Russian scientists from a crumbling Arctic ice floe some 600 kilometers from the North Pole has been successful. A dozen Russian researchers were trapped on the floe for three days, after it began to disintegrate, almost completely destroying their base.

Two Russian helicopters flew several hours from the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen to reach the stranded scientists. In what was described as "an extremely difficult operation," the stranded team of 12 men boarded one of the helicopters and headed for dry land. Two dogs were also saved.

The researchers had been trapped since Wednesday on the ice floe, 700 kilometers from the nearest land. The ice shelf on which their research station was based cracked, and then rose up in a 10-meter-high ice wall, which then collapsed and carried four of the six buildings under water, along with supplies and equipment.

No one from the research team was hurt. The team huddled in the remaining buildings, waiting for the arrival of the rescue teams. They had enough food for about five days, and managed to keep warm as temperatures outside hovered around -30 degrees Celsius.

The freezing weather and long distances made the evacuation risky and difficult. The effort involved two Russian helicopters - an MI-8, which was used to locate the scientists, and a heavy-load MI-26 that transported the scientists and their equipment.

Artur Chilingarov, a deputy parliament speaker and former polar explorer who headed the rescue effort, said the scientists would be home in time to celebrate International Women's Day on Monday -- an important holiday in Russia.

The damaged Severny Polus-32 station was launched in April of last year to study climate changes. It was Russia's first permanent research base near the North Pole since the collapse of the Soviet Union.