Antarctica: The Ice

Adventure, Art & Architecture
September 23, 2010 10:00 am

The thing that makes Antarctica so different from a trip to Alaska, or even the Arctic, is the feeling that what you’re looking at will never be seen by anyone in the same way after the moment passes. The ship’s angle changes, the light comes from a different direction, the iceberg moves.

The ice changes hourly — and you are the only human being who will see it exactly as it stands before you. In that sense, Antarctica is the perfect mental vacation. Every moment is private; you are isolated even from others on the ship through your individual thoughts and perception.

But enough with the existential.

Survival tip: When kayaking among icebergs, beware those that are more likely to turn over. If you see a berg with a scalloped surface, stay at least five feet away. Those shallow grooves are made by lapping waves when the ice is underwater. When they appear above the surface, it means the iceberg has recently turned over and is more likely to do so again, taking you and the kayak with it.

This bird is asking for it. Bergs with scalloped surfaces like this one are more likely to overturn.

The Antarctic has far more icebergs than the Arctic — and much larger ones. Whatever you see above the water is only between 1/10th and 1/8th the total mass of the berg, and what’s below isn’t necessarily directly under it. And there isn’t always a warning sign, but when there is, it’s mind-blowingly cool. When the skies are gray and overcast, Antarctic glacial ice glows a fluorescent blue, like a black light, which can warn you if smaller bergs extend far to the side.

The blue glow has something to do with the reflection of the sky on the water on the ice on your retina. Complicated enough?

An iceberg’s life is as predictable as a human life, but instead of a hospital in which to give birth, a glacier calves (a chunk falls off) when temperatures warm up in the spring and summer, giving birth to a brand new iceberg. The berg’s ice slowly compresses over thousands of years, and it deteriorates under strong waves and/or melts as currents carry it to warmer temperatures.

Glacier meets the ocean: where calving happens and where icebergs are born

The best part of an iceberg? They might as well be fugitives, as they are destined to be nameless and constantly change shape. Like cloud classification, there’s plenty of room for debate in naming icebergs. There are two types: tabular and non-tabular. Tabular bergs are flat on top, like a plateau, and often keep the layer of snow that covered the original glacier when it calved. Eventually, tabular bergs become non-tabular after the snow has compressed into ice or the berg rolls over, allowing waves and currents to change its shape. Of the non-tabular bergs, different shapes are called anything from “wedges” to “dry docks,” but many could be classified just as well under two terms as none. (Most of the time, my gran and I left the specifics to researchers and named the icebergs ourselves. …But our names were a bit more like pet names.)

Researchers might say "dry dock" or "pinnacle." Gran and I say "swim-up bar."

Despite being surrounded by ice, summer temperatures hung around 30 degrees Fahrenheit during our December 2006 trip. This does not mean we wore normal clothing. Before Wellington boots were paraded in NYC store windows, I owned a pair two sizes too big in order to fit three layers of ski socks inside. (People who make frequent trips count Wellies as the best waterproof brand available.) While you sit in your comfy chair scrolling through photos, you can at least be happy you didn’t have to pile this on every morning and take it all off each night:

Two people, one day's worth of clothing. All photos by Tara for TKGO.

Of course, I’m still trying to find excuses to live on an Antarctic ice breaker during the four months of every year they go back and forth to research stations… so you know getting dressed is not that bad.

Next up? More on the researchers who really do get to stay four months of every year, and plenty of photos of Antarctic wildlife (yes, that means penguins, whales, skuas, seals and neon-pink aquatic life). Stay tuned!

Tara for TKGO

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