Scientists and tourists who have been trapped on a ship off Antarctica for more than a week may be rescued within hours.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said at 7.30am (AEDT) on Thursday weather conditions in the area had improved and rescue operations were likely to start “shortly”.
“Weather conditions are expected to remain favourable over the next 36 hours,” AMSA said in a statement.
A helicopter on board the nearby Chinese Xue Long ship will be used to evacuate 52 of the 74 people who have been trapped on the Akademik Shokalskiy since Christmas Eve when it became stuck in deep pack ice.
Passengers will be collected from a makeshift landing pad they stomped into the ice near the ship.
They will be flown out in groups of 12 to the Xue Long ship before being transferred via a barge to the Aurora Australis rescue icebreaker.
The decision was made to resort to a helicopter rescue after the Aurora Australis was forced to retreat in the face of freezing winds and snow showers.
Thick ice had earlier prevented both the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long and a French icebreaker from reaching the stranded crew.
The ship’s 22 crew will remain on the vessel in the hope changing weather conditions will allow it get out of the ice field.