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The story takes place on a research station located on a remote Subantarctic island. It's an amalgamation of various existing islands like the Kerguelen islands, Macquarie island and South Georgia Island, which are overseas territories of France, UK and Australia respectively. Let's say the island in my story is on a British overseas territory, and is managed by the British Antarctic Survey. All of a sudden, there hasn't been any communication from the base for weeks - they've gone completely dark. There's a supply ship that goes to the island a few times a year (based on the real-life Marion Dufresne vessel that resupplies Kerguelen and Crozet islands), and that one hasn't returned from its last supply run. There were 15ish people on the base and they haven't been heard from at all.

In a situation such as this, what would be the protocol? Who would take on the accountability to try and figure out what happened on the base? Who would be sent to investigate? Would it be military, or a group of researchers/scientists? Or would they just send a helicopter to do a landing? A drone flyover? What are we planning here?

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I believe that this would be sufficiently one-of-a-kind that people would make it up as they go.

  • After the initial failure to answer (satlink) phones, the support organization might report this to their government and inquire if the government has any information.
  • In parallel, they may be looking for commercial imagery from a sun-synchronous (i.e. polar-orbit) recon sat. Any visible results (burned-out buildings, SOS trampled in the snow, ...) would turn the mystery into an emergency.
  • As long as it is merely a communications failure, they could look for signs of routine activity (possibly even people outside), that would reduce the panic level.
  • If the supply ship had an AIS transponder and that goes dark, there is a last known position. Is that at the island, and can the ship be found in the sat images?
  • A missing ship constitutes an emergency at sea, where military ships and aircraft as well as civilian ships would be expected to respond, to the best of their ability. Compare the Sydney to Hobart race in 1998.
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    $\begingroup$ FWIW, I would be very surprised if there weren't protocols in place already for this situation. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 3 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ The most likely response? Assuming weather conditions permit would be for the closest antarctic base with air lift to send a team to check. I don't know if there is any treaty provisions governing this but given the isolation & danger involved in antarctic research there's a well recognized 'understanding' that if someone is in trouble those nearest will go to their aid if they can. Often to the extent of bases coordinating with each other over who can lend what assistance. And politics doesn't come into it. Its a bit like the ISS that way. Russia and the US would assist each other if needed. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Apr 11 at 3:39
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The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA)

The MCA is the United Kingdom's formal government agency responsible for maritime and coastal search and rescue; so, ultimately it's these guys' responsibility. The MCA provides Advanced Polar Code Training to Masters and Officers who are responsible for operating in icy conditions making them uniquely qualified for the mission... as long as the water conditions are not too dangerous that is.

The MCA does not own and operate any icebreakers in the antarctic region; so, if this happens in the winter they may need to reach out to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the only British government agency that operates a heavy icebreaker in the Southern hemisphere, and conduct a joint operation using the RRS Sir David Attenborough. If they send the RRS Sir David Attenborough with a MCA search-and-rescue team, then you will be seeing military, scientists, and helicopter support all showing up for the mission. Not one or the other.

It is also possible that the MCA will try to coordinate with other governments that operate in the Southern Hemisphere to provide a more timely response, but icebreakers are WAY more rare in the Southern Hemisphere than they are in the Actictic. The only other icebreaker that might be closer would be the Australian RSV Nuyina which is also a research icebreaker with helicopter capabilities.

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