Antarctic report – stuck!

By Guest Author 02/02/2012

Despite being stuck on base due to weather for what is now the fourth day we feel incredibly lucky.  The station went from being the Caribbean of the South (or so the locals say) to blowing snow and dare I say it — a little bit cold.

Really, we are in Antarctica.  An onshore wind picked up and built up a decent ocean swell.  Of course this happened right when the Italian ship, The Italica, came in to harbour to offload equipment and food.  This eventually had to be abandoned and the ship temporarily departed to deploy some observational moorings nearby with a plan to return in a few days and try again.


This same swell started to eat away at the first year ice breaking it up into bite-sized floes — maybe 20-30 m across — that stretched away into the distance as far as the eye could see.  The wind continued to force the floes in against the coast providing a spectacular vista. Brett and I headed down to shore to watch the waves and ice do their thing.  The quality of environmental documentaries these days is so high we are familiar with the look of such displays.  But nothing really compares with the reality happening right in front of you. Massive chunks of ice are tossed around as if they are weightless which indeed, whilst floating, they are in a way.  Penguins hop on and off floes without a care in the world.  I snuck off early to bed. Brett, powered by youth, stayed up watching the display and claimed to have seen an Orca blowing in the distance.  He may have been having me on, but seeing as Orca are a regular occurrence for us in Wellington, maybe not.  Either way, the penguins clearly do have some concerns.

The wind changed direction overnight, picking up now to a not-inconsequential 40 knots.  Hence we are stuck on base despite it being a bright sunny day.  The helicopters (and me) don’t want to be bouncing around in the wake of the mountains to the west of here.  The wind made the sea of ice disappear literally overnight.  We now have a sunny, wavy coastal vista that could be anywhere in the world if it wasn’t for the frozen volcano (Mount Melbourne) in the distance and the water temperature being around -1.9 degrees Celsius.  This means the floes don’t melt, they aggregate in huge bands which are moved around by the currents and the wind.

The ice floes end up in the marginal ice zone which surrounds Antarctica during this season, filled with broken ice.  I think it must have been cartoons from childhood that made me think the floes would be round-ish in shape but they’re not.  They’re close on square most of the time and sharp-edged and sharp-cornered.  Like tiles on a roman mosaic, except in monochrome.  This marginal ice zone (MIZ for short) can extend for hundred of kilometres.  The ability of waves to pass through the MIZ is quite an important issue.  If the waves do get through then they can eat away at the fast ice along the shore and speed up coastal fast ice break-up.  However, only a precious few experiments have ever managed to provide information on this process. A colleague, Alison Kohout, has an ambitious plan to deploy wave sensors on floes from a ship next summer as it slices through this marginal ice zone.  This will be an incredibly exciting opportunity to get at some key numbers to help models come closer to representing the myriad processes that ultimately control this area of the ocean.

So now we are down to a scheduling squeeze.  We have three more days to finish up here before our flight south.  In that time we actually have to be able to get to our field camp to retrieve equipment that has been recording background properties, as well as the camp itself. We have also entertained the possibility that the ice upon which our camp is set up is now a floe too.  We’ll deal with that if it happens. There’s a rule in oceanography — never expect anything you put in the ocean to come back.  Certainly it’s nice when it does, but don’t assume it’ll happen.  Sea ice oceanography, at least this time of year, is the same.

I would say this, but from a distance people naturally focus on the cost of the equipment.  The reality is, in the face of the operational costs of getting and staying (safely) here, the cost of the replaceable gear is far outweighed by the value of totally new observations (and ideas they spawn), in a new and important location and season.