I never believed there could be so many ways to see ice. This blog entry shares an experience in the Southern Ocean. I hope it takes you there for even the briefest moment, and reminds you of the beauty all around us.
Research Vessel / Ice Class Vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer
63º south latitude
Erebus and Terror Gulf
The water is calm, protected from wind and seas by the James Ross Islands and Bransfield Island. Although it’s December, it’s mid-summer in the southern hemisphere.
Here, we travel in the shadows of massive icebergs. At the same time, growlers hide just beneath the surface. Growlers are nearly exhausted fragments of ancient icebergs that grate against the side of the ship. They sound like ice skates screeching across uneven ice. Icebergs are like snowflakes, no two alike. All are born of the glacial ice that flows downward from the continent. Slowly, sometimes taking millennia, a massive river of ice leaks toward the sea. Looking from a distance, one can see a pattern to the glacial flow, the graceful waves of white creating subtle shadows of bas-relief. It appears frozen in place, but is moving, millimeter by millimeter, year after year. Always downward.
When the glacier reaches water, it continues its torpid slide, inching across the seabed. As the water becomes deeper, the glacier floats, becoming an ice shelf. The ice shelf rises up, hundreds of feet above the water line. Gargantuan. Solid white with the slightest touch of blue, the shelf extends miles in either direction.
This free-floating ice makes tabular bergs. Flat-topped floating islands, some have huge crevasses and deep caves in them. Selsun blue in color, they are mesmerizing. They draw me into their cryptic depths and I find myself mentally falling in, then jerking back to reality, as if in the first moments of dropping off to sleep unexpectedly, and being startled awake.
Huge white overhangs create shadows. Shadows create mystery. My insides get melty, as if the iron that has always been my will turns molten. Excitement and fear have always sat side by side in me; now they sit in one seat, between my heart and my stomach. A ball of heat and cold, up and down, right and left. Intoxicated and giddy, like a six-year old at the front of a toboggan. The power of the forces that created this place gifts me with beauty and harshness at once. In this place, the inside of me knows fear. The cold water is like a siren to me. I want to jump in, even as I know the consequences. But today, I stay aboard because the draw of what’s ahead is greater than the draw of what’s below.
The bergs can be huge. B-15, calved from the Ross Ice Shelf, measures one-hundred and eighty-three miles by twenty-three miles, with a surface area of four thousand, two-hundred square miles. Icebergs are made up of many thousands of years of compacted snow. Layer upon layer, they tell the story of what it was like when the snow that created them fell from the sky. Like a ring of a tree tells the story of the year it grew, the layers of an iceberg have their own remembrances. Each layer whispers details from a chapter of life. Organisms, both large and small, lie frozen in the ice, guarding the memory of what Antarctica was like at the time they were entombed. Creatures are embedded and preserved in near perfect condition.
We’re surrounded by small islands, most of them partially covered in snow. There are steep crags and cliffs where the wind has erased the snow, creating deep black contrast against the pristine white of the remaining snow. It’s a black ink sketch on lily-white paper. The beauty takes my breath away the first time I see it.
That’s it for today. More bits and pieces of life at sea to come. For today, I want to remind myself to look at everything as if it’s the first time I’ve seen it, and in that way, see the magic that surrounds me.