It is impossible to come to Antarctica and not be possessed by the ice, simply because it is everywhere.
The continent is covered in places by two to three miles of ice, so heavy it has submerged the land beneath below the surface of the ocean. In its ice Antarctica contains seventy-five percent of the fresh water on the planet. The freezing of the sea that surrounds Antarctica is the greatest seasonal change on the planet. At the height of winter (June-July-August), the sea around the continent freezes at an unbelievable rate – advancing two miles a day, creating more than 40,000 square miles each day. By mid-winter seven million square miles of sea has frozen around the continent, doubling its size (you could fit two of the United States inside).
Come spring much of that frozen sea breaks off, drifts away, blows into warmer waters and melts. Yet still, at the height of summer (January), just a few weeks from now, only two percent of the continent is ice-free.
Unlike the one hundred words for snow allegedly used by the Eskimos, there is only one word for frozen water down here: ICE. But of course there are thirty to forty different variations. A few that you may hear me reference in coming weeks: Sea ice is frozen salt water, flat and floating on the water’s surface. Fast Ice or Shore-Fast Ice is the frozen sea that remains attached to land; it can be walked on, usually safely, which I’m sure we’ll do in the coming weeks. Ice Floes are flat pieces of sea ice sixty or more feet in diameter, broken up by the action of wind and ocean swells. Pack Ice is an expanse of broken sea ice or ice floes that have been pushed together by winds and currents. Pancake Ice is roundish plates of ice, usually just ten to fifteen in diameter, found in the early stages of the freezing of the sea.
When it comes to fresh water ice, which comes off the continent, there are glaciers, which is ice flowing downhill, moving under the influence of gravity and creating great tongues running straight down to the water’s edge. A tabular iceberg is big and flat-topped and has broken straight off the ice shelf, which is created by fresh water flowing into a protected bay. An iceberg can range in size but is usually more than fifteen feet tall; by comparison, bergey bits and growlers are smaller pieces of floating ice. Brash ice, which we’ve seen a lot of already, are the chunky/junky remnants of all of the above, floating on the surface, looking like it’s been run through a blender.
Two nights ago, across the Gerlache Strait cloaked in dense fog we saw the surreal sight of the M/V Ushuaia moving southwards, attached to the Chilean Naval ship Lautaro. We guessed they were pumping fuel from the injured tourist ship into the reserves of the Navy ship, just in case it was still leaking. We also assumed they were looking for a calm hideaway where they could properly inspect the ship before attempting to motor back to South America.
In fact, they headed into the northern end of Paradise Harbor, where we had spent an earlier part of the day, so that Navy divers could inspect the hull. Too much ice prevented them from staying, instead anchoring off Waterboat Point, near the Chilean station called Presidente Gonzalez Videla. Apparently, according to my friends at IAATO, the private organization that oversees and coordinates all tourist traffic along the Peninsula, the hole in the hull was not sufficient to stop the boat, nor was it leaking any longer. Released by the Chilean Navy, the M/V Ushuaia should by now have arrived under its own power at a protected anchorage in the South Shetland Islands, where it will consider its next move – returning to Argentina on its own, perhaps being accompanied, or even towed.