The United States and the Soviet Union have agreed to establish a research station on the drifting ice of the Weddell Sea in their first joint scientific effort in Antarctica.
Researchers hope the station's 31 workers will obtain new data about the ice-covered sea and the floor beneath it, probably the least-known oceanic region on Earth.
The plan is for the Soviet ice-breaking research ship, Akademik Federov, to set up the station in January and February 1992 on a large ice floe in the southwest part of the Weddell Sea.
The station is expected to drift north, parallel to the Antarctic Peninsula, along the edge of the submerged continental shelf.
It is expected to move several miles a day in an irregular path as currents carry the ice in a giant clockwise circle.
Once the floe has moved hundreds of miles and is near the open sea, the Akademik Federov, or possibly a U.S. ice-breaker now under construction, will evacuate the station.
Among the station's possible research subjects are global ocean circulation, the sea's response to climate change, and the nature of the sea floor. Ice-locked ships and a few ice-breaker penetrations have provided tantalizing but fragmentary clues to these questions.
Gravity measurements from aircraft and satellites have hinted that the edge of the relatively shallow continental shelf is about 60 miles closer to the peninsula than had been supposed, with parts of it only 100 miles from the coast.
This finding, if confirmed, would have special significance for those seeking to learn the birthplace of the Antarctic bottom water, the frigid water, rich in nutrients and oxygen, that flows along the bottom of about three-quarters of the world's oceans, welling upward to feed great fisheries like those along the west coast of South America and in the Gulf of Guinea near West Africa.
It is assumed that this flow originates largely in the Weddell Sea, but how, where and when is uncertain.
The research station is to be established near where Sir Ernest Shackleton's ship, Endurance, began to drift after becoming trapped in the ice in 1915.
Over 281 days, it was carried 570 miles north, parallel to the Antarctic Peninsula. It was then crushed and sent to the bottom, inaugurating an epic of polar survival.
Sir Ernest's party set up camp on the drifting ice. As the floe neared Elephant Island, north of the peninsula, the explorers dragged boats to open water and reached the island. Sir Ernest and five companions crossed 870 miles of open sea to organize a rescue. Not a man was lost.
The U.S.-Soviet station is expected to drift along roughly the same route.
The researchers will try to find a floe at least 10 feet thick, a mile long and a half-mile wide to accommodate an airstrip and camp.
Most of the equipment will be delivered by the Soviet ship, with the lighter gear being flown in by its helicopter. The supplies are to include 16 huts similar to those used for many years at Soviet drifting stations on the Arctic ice, plus additional shelters.
The station party is to consist of 10 Soviet scientists and 6 support personnel, and 10 U.S. scientists and 5 support personnel.
The Soviet party will include two mechanics, two cooks, a doctor and one technician. The Americans will include two helicopter pilots, two mechanics and a specialist in radio and flight operations.
The United States will furnish heaters, sleds, small tracked vehicles, food and a microwave oven.
A U.S. twin-engined Otter aircraft based at a Chilean airfield on King George Island, near the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, is to fly in supplies.
Two U.S. helicopters at the drifting station are to carry scientists and their instruments to numerous observing sites near the station. They may also fly to and from Palmer Station, on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula.
U.S. and Soviet scientists have met many times to work out detailed plans. At the next such meeting, in May in Leningrad, a Soviet scientist accompanying the German research ship, Polarstern, as it probes the Weddell ice this month is to report on the ship's findings.
Dr. Peter Wilkniss of the National Science Foundation, director of U.S. projects in Antarctica, said that one worry is that the project could be affected by changes in the Soviet Union. The Soviet program will be sponsored by the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in Leningrad.
The drifting ice surrounding the Antarctic has been the nemesis of many expedition ships in addition to the Endurance. In 1905, five weeks after it became trapped north of the Weddell Sea, the Swedish ship, Antarctic, was crushed, but its crew fled across the ice. All reached land, but one man later died.
In 1912, after being beset in that sea for nine months and drifting 700 miles north, the German ship, Deutschland, broke loose and escaped.