January 19, 2010

Entering the Mysterious Waters of Antarctica

We crossed the 60th parallel yesterday and with it the seascape began to change.  The huge waves that we battled in the screeching 50’s faded into smaller long distance swells that would remind us of what is waiting for us when we attempt to return northward on our way back after we finish drilling.

The ocean continued to cool and with it created thick fog that would obscure our way as we plodded through these icy waters toward our first drilling site.  When we started our shift at midnight, the inky night was further obscured by an icy fog. The JR slowly made its way through it, and it made our journey to the remote continent even more mysterious and forbidding.

Even with the break of day, which started progressively earlier owing to our climb to ever higher latitudes, the seascape was a blank. The horizon disappeared, replaced by a gray ceiling that no eye could gaze through. I would see only an occasional large wave  rise up relatively close by creating a momentary horizon only to be quickly replaced by this merging of sea and sky.

When the fog finally lifted, we were greeted with the appearance of iridescent-blue icebergs that came seemingly from out of nowhere and now created a flotilla of towering icy mountains. We passed them (at a safe distance, mind you), only to have new ones appear on the horizon.

These icebergs were once part of the vast ice sheets that cover 98 percent of Antarctica. They began their journey high up on the plateaus as fragile snowflakes gently falling from the sky (which originally came from moisture from the ocean), but were transformed from the unrelenting pressure from the snow above into a solid mass so hard and forceful that it has scraped and eroded all soil and much rock from this once lush continent. It is strange that what once was such a soft powdery substance became this unstoppable mass of harden blue crystals.  With unrelenting forces beset by gravity, the ice has continuously scraped and scorned the rocks by their weight and movement, with the inexorable desire of only getting down to the sea, where once achieving this goal, it will perish like a moth to a flame.

It is here out at sea that we see the remains of the ice’s travel from the glaciers that lie less than 100 killometers from our location. Without the warmth from the air that could melt them, they extend out into the sea, where the unrelenting force of crashing waves and the warming provided by the water, large pieces of the ice sheet—some the size of an island—break off and begin the last portion of their return journey to the sea.  Currents then slowly bring the icebergs out to sea and into our view to see and admire.