Today I experienced an entirely sensation: travelling through sea ice. I don’t think anything can really prepare you for the magnificence of the experience. After days of rolling on the high seas, we have entered a world of absolute silence and calm. The chaotic high seas have been replaced by tranquil, millpond conditions. Flat, low lying chunks of ice lie scattered across the surface, separated by narrow leads of water, which the Shokalskiy resolutely tries to follow as it works its way across this ice scape. All is white and blue. The few waves we see are shadows of their cousins further north, and these pass lazily by, leaving little impression on the surface.
One of the expeditioners who wrote a wonderful entry about the AAE’s first arrival in sea ice was meteorologist Cecil Madigan. On the 30 December 1911 the fog had cleared and Madigan wrote:
“From the open cabin door I look out on about one hundred yards of open sea, part of an open lead we are following just now through the drift, and beyond it the beautiful ice. My poor pen cannot describe it, its quietness, its perfect whiteness with the marvellous cobalt blue in the hollows, and green where it can be seen through the water: a dull sky, dark threatening clouds, a few penguins on the ice, and now and then a beautiful snow-white ice bird flying across my small field of view.”
A snow petrel
One hundred years on and fog remains our companion but not even the limited visibility can detract from the scene; if anything it adds to the sense of isolation. Though of course we’re not really alone. We have seen an abundance of Antarctic wildlife. One of our first sightings was of a solitary emperor penguin standing resolutely to attention as we steamed past, quite uninterested. But this was quickly followed by groups of Adelie penguins who scurry away, flapping their wings behind them as they dash to a safe distance. In the air, bird numbers have also increased. Kerry-Jayne warned me we would soon see snow petrels flying around the vessel – “the most beautiful bird in the world”. I know what she means. Pure white, these magnificent creatures fly effortlessly around the vessel, keeping us company as we push on south. Hopefully they will bring us luck!
Cape Denison holds a special place in the history of Antarctic exploration. A small outcrop of rocks on the remote East Antarctic coastline, Cape Denison is forever associated with one of the most spectacular and often forgotten tales of survival. A century ago it was the main base of operations for one of the great explorers of the south: the Australian scientist Sir Douglas Mawson. Privately funded, three bases and one research ship supported a science team that explored a region the size of the United States between 1911 and 1914. Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition, however, suffered terribly during their time at Cape Denison: a sudden turn of events led to tragedy on the ice, the death of two men, allegations of cannibalism and with the return of winter sea ice, an extended stay in Antarctica. But when they first came upon Cape Denison, Mawson was ecstatic. Greeted by squawking penguins: ‘We were soon inside a beautiful, miniature harbour completely land-locked. The sun sh…
Commonwealth Bay in the
East Antarctic will be forever associated with Sir Douglas Mawson’s pioneering
scientific venture a century ago: the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Mawson’s
team had only intended to spend one year south, but it was not to be. A sudden turn of events led to tragedy on the ice, the deaths of two men, allegations of cannibalism and, with the return of winter sea ice, an extended stay in Antarctica. While the efforts of Mawson and his men laid the foundations for modern
Antarctic science, the region has continued to experience dramatic change. And
it doesn’t get any more dramatic than the arrival of iceberg B09B in 2011. The
word ‘berg’ doesn’t really do it justice though – B09B is a monster. Weighing
in at an estimated 500 billion tonnes, this block of ice is 97 miles long and over
20 kilometres wide. There’s enough freshwater in B09B to provide all of New
York’s drinking needs for 300 years. And it started out even larger. In 1987,
an iceberg the size of Bal…
At the end of the last ice age (11,000 to 18,000 years ago), the world suddenly lost some of the most remarkable creatures that ever roamed our planet. Patagonia in southern South America was particularly rich in creatures that could only be labelled bizarre today: elephant-sized sloths, giant jaguar, powerful sabre-toothed cats and an enormous one-tonne short-faced bear (the largest ever land-based mammalian carnivore). What caused their demise is one of the big geological whodunnits.
Last year you may remember we had a research paper published in Science that looked at megafaunal extinction in North America and Eurasia. Whilst warming looked like it was a driver of the extinctions in the Northern Hemisphere, there was a tantalising hint that humans had also played a role. But disentangling the effects of both was challenging. To test their roles we have extended our work to Patagonia and the results are now published in the The American Association for the Advancement of Science j…