Sea Ice & South Pole

Back from a lovely day of Sea Ice training, which involved learning about the formation, inherent qualities, and stress-factors of sea ice. Did you know, for example, that the continent of Antarctica (which is already the size of the US) doubles in size each year, in the Austral winter, through the vast accumulation of sea-ice on all borders? Currently it is shrinking. Did you know that a sheet of sea ice floats so as to lift approximately 1/10th of it’s depth above the water-line? We learned about sea-ice cracks, how they form, and how to measure the cracks (with ice drills and measuring lines) so as to calculate whether the vehicle we are driving can safely cross the fissure. Obviously, math is not my strongest skill, but neither is sudden icy death — so I did the math. One has to gauge depths, lump suspicious sections together, measure their width, and divide the track bed of one’s vehicle by three, and compare the width of the weak ice to the width of the 1/3 track. Or something very close to that.

To put our new knowledge into practice, we bundled up and piled into the cargo portion of a Haglund vehicle, which makes you feel like you are in the Army in, say, Alaska. Our instructor drove us over the sea ice to a very active spot near historic Cape Evans. We did our ice-core measurements just out from where the Barne Glacier meets the sea (smashing silently into the sea ice). End of the Cape Evans Road: no safe sea-ice travel beyond, for USAP vehicles. We confirmed that this restriction should remain in place! There are some very active “features” out there. The blue sea ice looked like an heirloom porcelain plate, dropped and super-glued back together a few too many times, with lots of sponge-like cellular formations in the windswept ice, where the salt crystals were forced out. As we drilled into the thinnest center of the crack, sea water surged up around the drill. Perfectly normal, but still a bit spooky…

Between the Erebus Glacier Tongue and the Delbridge Islands (Inaccessible Island, Tent Island, Turtle Head and the Razorback siblings, all fragments of an ancient volcano rim) one sees cracks and pressure ridges jutting up like broken castle walls, running between the islands and back to land/tongue. Amid the pressure ridges: open spots of water, and a few large black seals. The sea ice is being acted upon by a variety of forces, including tidal currents, internal structural warming, wind, and weather conditions in the open sea. Behind us, the Barne Glacier glowed icy blue in the sunlight, and Erebus steamed in the distance, above. Just before reaching the Barne Glacier, we passed the site of the Cape Evans Hut (currently inaccessible due to sea-ice road conditions). Only the roof peaked out of the great drifts of snow along the edge of the sea!

Other highlights of today’s Sea Ice trek included giant Weddel seals sunning themselves in a small herd, near the pressure ridges and the active crack we were measuring, in which there must have been open water… and four small Adelie penguins. These penguins emerged from nowhere while I was getting some photographs of Barne, and when I turned around they were literally running willy-nilly after the retreating members of my Sea-Ice group. The instructor told everyone to sit down (to put them at ease) and so the friendly little Adelies ran right up to them, to inspect them, or join them? As my friend Stuart Klipper likes to say, penguins “penguino-morphize” humans and probably assume that we are just some large, ugly distant relatives.

In other news: a certain “Ice Road” Traverse convoy is set to depart Wiley Field at 11:11 AM on 11-11 (Thursday). I would like to wave them off — goodbyes interest me a great deal. John Priscu (microbial biochemist and Antarctic ice guru) and 43 other scientists arrived in McMurdo this week. Antarctica is starting to reach critical (brain) mass! I am slated to meet up with John Priscu while he is working in situ, out in the Dry Valleys later this month, and very much looking forward to it.

Photographer extraordinaire Ann Hawthorne (see the 1996 Antarctic Sun article “NSF Brings Backs Photographer”) is sorting gear and about to head out to photo-document the amazing Barwick Valley (see description and map) a pristine Specially Protected Area of the Antarctic Wilderness. Few feet have been there. Meanwhile, detective novelist and geologist Sarah Andrews has arrived on the ice, and I will be sharing the office with her, except while she is out working with science teams in the field. She is currently thinking of ways to kill off someone for her upcoming Antarctic novel, In Cold Pursuit, and announced that she is open to nominations. Fingers crossed that the victim list includes no poets.

*

My trip to the South Pole is back on: scheduled for tomorrow morning. As usual, there will be an early morning attempt for a reconnaissance flight to WAIS (The West Antarctic Ice Sheet). My flight follows. Assuming the WAIS flight is cancelled again, as has been the case for the past 2 weeks, my transport time will automatically shift forward to 7:15 am, by which time I need to be standing with carry-on duffel in hand, dressed in ECW gear (long underwear thermal layers under a wind-breaker jumpsuit and the NSF-issue parka affectionately known as Big Red, gloves, and bunny boots with the valves set to “open” to accomodate plane pressurization).

Speaking of early hours, I am feeling weirdly un-caffeinated lately. The mess-hall coffee is too lackluster to bother with, especially since I am struggling to stay hydrated. Then I forget (or just don’t have time to prepare) coffee for myself, although I brought along some good coffee from New Zealand. Then suddenly it’s 9 pm and I must fight the urge to make coffee since the caffeine, combined with the rarified air and the amazing midnight light, keeps my brain from shutting down. Right now — it’s almost 1 am local time, for example, and if I sat outside for a half-hour I’d have a blistering sunburn. Hard to sleep but now I must. Pole next.

HOW DOTH MY GOOD COUSIN SILENCE?
-Denis Glover

The one time silent regions of the Pole
Are now vociferous, upon the whole.
Where Amundsen stormed in with cold deceit
And Scott’s grim team toiled on to outface defeat
Now Neptune navy boys, pre-heated upper lip,
Roar in to land on Coca-Cola Strip
And great Sir Hillary’s ice-breaker jaw
Drums in with tractors. What a bore.

O Pole, thou should’st be silent as before.

But, quoth the London Committee, and the Ross
Sea Committee, and the chewing-gum boys, and the
Ob and the Grab and the IGY scientists
and sickeners, and Life and TIme, and all the
quarrel-thickeners,
Nevermore.

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