Lambelasma is my name
Fossils are cool, and everybody knows it. Dinosaurs, ammonites, trilobites – all extinct but living on in our imagination, in films and books and documentaries and children’s stories. We watch ‘JurassicPark’ and ‘Ice Age’ on TV, collect fossil bones and shells on the beach, and amuse the kids with a remote-controlled plastic dino until the batteries run out.
But what about all those fossils that no film director wants to know about? 99% of all organisms that ever lived on Earth are extinct. Only a fraction of these were dinosaurs, so what about the rest? Billions of species have evolved and disappeared, and most have only ever been heard of by small groups of scientists who devote their lives to charting the history of evolution. Here’s a little test: do you know Lepidodendron, Meganeura, Rhynia, Bothryolepis, Calycocoelia or Lambelasma? Two of them are plants, one is a dragonfly, one fish, one sponge and a coral - ten points if you can put them in the correct groups.
Sometimes those bizarre fossils that only geeky scientists are interested in develop an unexpected life of their own. I am interested in corals – but not those colourful ones that make up the Great Barrier Reef, this beautiful living structure that can be seen from space. No, I picked an obscure group of corals that has been extinct for 250 million years. These corals are called rugose corals, and they look a bit like ice cream cones. They lived in the sea of course, little tentacles sticking out of a hard skeleton, some in shallow water, others quite deep. Most were only little, a few centimeters in size, although there are some that grew to half a meter in length. One of these has just reached a certain level of fame, and this is its story.
The mystery fossil
Two years ago two colleagues of mine were looking for brachiopods and trilobites in a remote corner of northeastern Iran. It was hot and dry, and where we in Britain have road signs warning of mud and flooding, in Iran they have signs warning of blown sand and collisions with wild camels. Doing geology is great in these areas, because you do not get any pesky vegetation growing in the way of beautiful rocks.
My colleagues, Leonid Popov (Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales), and Mansoureh Ghobadi Pour (Golestan University, Iran), did find plenty of fossils that day in the desert, but one rock contained something unusual. It was mostly buried inside the rock but the little bit that was sticking out looked a bit like a rugose coral. Leonid and Mansoureh knew exactly how old these rocks were. What they did not realise at the time, when they brought the fossil back to Cardiff for me to check out, was that they were too old for rugose corals.
Corals are an ancient type of organism. Several different kinds have existed, most groups of corals are now extinct. The rugosans are not the oldest, but they are pretty old. Early rugose corals have been found in Northern Europe, North America and Australia, in rocks of Upper Ordovician age (about 450 million years old). The rocks in Iran which Leonid and Mansoureh were walking on are Middle Ordovician (462 million years). Therefore, if this new little fossil from Iran really was a rugose coral, it was going to be the earliest known one. Excitement all around, because everyone wants to find a first, but you have to do this sort of thing carefully, because you do not want to claim a first, then be proved wrong and make a fool of yourself. Because there are some sponges at that time which also look like ice cream cones, so we needed to be sure before shouting it from the roof tops.
Identifying rugose corals is not easy. You need a geological lab to make at least a couple of thin sections of the fossil. These are slices of rock thinner than a human hair, so thin that you can shine light through them and look at the structures inside. At the National Museum, we have the lab and we make lots of thin sections. But this is a destructive technique – in the process of finding out what’s inside the rock you lose your fossil. What if you only have one or two fossils, and you don’t want to destroy it? I started looking around for what we call non-destructive analytical techniques, and after a couple of unsuccessful attempts ended up at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron in Oxfordshire.
Fossils and X-Rays
Synchrotron X-Ray Tomography works a bit like an X-Ray in hospital, when you have broken your arm. Only the X-Rays are much more powerful – they can penetrate rock. At the Diamond synchrotron, this had only been tried once before, and the fossil then was preserved very differently (as pyrite) compared to ‘my’ coral (calcite and silica in a carbonate rock). Leonid came to Diamond with me, and together with Robert Atwood from Diamond we worked around the clock for three days – in that time I only had four hours sleep and I was completely shattered at the end of it. But just doing the analysis was not the end. The data coming out of the synchrotron were only ‘raw’, and they needed to be rendered, cleaned, edited, loaded into a different programme – this is what Robert did, and only after all that we found out whether the technique actually worked.
Robert did some amazing magic with the data, and it turned out that the technique really had worked. We were looking at a 3D reconstruction of the beast inside the rock, without ever having touched the rock. The fossil was still intact, it was still partly buried, and we also had the information we needed to describe it. For a palaeontologist this is pretty amazing stuff.
From the images and the 3D reconstruction it was immediately obvious that this fossil was not a sponge, but that it really was a rugose coral. This was the second sensation. Definitely a rugose coral, we are certain of the age of the rocks, and it predates the previously known oldest rugose coral by 5 million years – quite a margin, even in Palaeozoic palaeontology. We called it Lambelasma because it has some characteristics of that genus – even though in the future we will probably find that it is actually a new genus, but we need more fossils to be able to decide that. That is quite difficult to organise, due to the remoteness of the area where this one came from.
A conference in Oxfordshire and another one in Dublin, scientific publication, press release, and radio interview later, everything calms down. Until, six months later, an e-mail from the Diamond press office asks if I can come to the Cheltenham Science Festival in two weeks’ time. Apparently, 14 year old Christy Au from Headington School in Oxford picked our research as the subject to write about as part of Diamond’s ‘Light Reading’ competition; and won it! Her little story describes the feelings and experiences of the little fossil inside the rock, waiting to be discovered, and it is absolutely amazing.
Science and Art
This was all quite short notice, but a sudden burst of activity and a lot of help from many different people – most of all Sheng Yue from the University of Manchester – meant that Diamond was able to produce an upscaled 3D model of the coral. The model was nearly 20 cm long and much more presentable than the 1.8 cm long original fossil.
Christy came to Cheltenham thinking she was just part of a normal school trip to the Science Festival – but then, to her amazement, got ushered into the VIP area for a an award presentation. She met some of the team involved in the research, met the fossil and the 3D reconstruction, was photographed from all angles, and her story was read out by Professor Alice Roberts. Suddenly, Lambelasma had taken on a life of its own. This obscure little fossil, that, normally, would only get half a dozen geeks excited, was now on a public platform. Everyone was talking about it. It definitely had the X factor.
So what about Lambelasma now? It has all gone quiet again, and the fossil has gone back to the collections at the National Museum in Cardiff. Maybe you’ll come to visit the museum and happen to see it there. Look closely, because it really is only little. Hopefully you won’t think ‘Oh, it’s just an obscure little fossil, half-buried inside a small piece of rock’. Instead, think how much work it is to uncover the secrets of our Earth, and what wonderful stories are hidden inside each piece of rock.
Tom Sharpe's Antarctic Diary
Sunday 4 December 2011
A bright, clear, sunny morning gave us our first good look at Macquarie Island, its straight steep eastern side plunging into the sea. On the shore we could see a beach packed with King penguins.
We had hoped to take the zodiacs out to cruise amongst the swimming Kings but a southerly wind was too strong and the swell too big for safety. But the Kings came to us instead. They are curious birds, and hundreds of them swam all around the ship.
Soon it was time to leave and we set off along the eastern side of Macquarie and out into the Southern Ocean. Once well out of sight of land, we were accompanied by several pairs of light-mantled sooty albatross which soared alongside our ship.
Below, skimming the waves, flashes of blue were Antarctic prions, while farther out, the huge white wingspan of a wandering albatross swept back and forth low above the water.
Monday 5 December 2011
It's going to take us two full days at sea to our next landfall, at Hobart in Tasmania, where my Antarctic journey will end. So all day today we've been rolling back and forth in the swell of the Tasman Sea and we've another day of it to go.
This is the time to look back on where we've been and what we've seen. A visit to Antarctica is always special, but this visit to the Ross Sea has been truly extraordinary. It's a difficult place to get to - we had to break our way through 900 miles of pack ice to reach 77o 50° South - and the landscape is like no other. It's one of those places where you find it hard to believe that you are really there.
It's been an amazing and moving experience to visit the century-old huts of the Scott and Shackleton expeditions, and one can only be in awe of their achievements, not just in their exploration of new lands but in the scientific work they did here, often in the severest conditions.
Having been to their expedition bases and to some of the sites they visited, I'm looking forward to re-reading the accounts of their expeditions, and especially that of Scott's last expedition, the centenary of which will be marked next year with a number of events in the UK.
I'm sure that much of what I've seen and experienced on this trip deep below the Antarctic Circle will enhance our forthcoming exhibition, Captain Scott:South for Science, and the activities we have planned around it. But for now, it's back to the rolling sea.
Tom Sharpe's Antarctic Diary
Sunday 27 November 2011
We’ve been slowly breaking through heavy pack ice as we travel around Ross Island to see the Ross Ice Shelf. But we’ve the view of the volcanoes of Ross Island, including Mount Erebus, which has made up for it.
We saw a rocky headland at the eastern end of Ross Island - Cape Crozier, the site of an Emperor penguin rookery, famous as the destination of The Worst Journey in the World. Edward Wilson, Birdie Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard of Scott’s last expedition sledged the 60 miles from the other side of the island in the intense cold and 24 hour darkness of the Antarctic winter to collect Emperor eggs, believing that these would shed light on the evolutionary relationships between reptiles and birds. The journey was an epic one, with temperatures down to -60oC. It was so cold, their teeth cracked. Their tent blew away and they nearly died. Cherry-Garrard’s book is a classic of Antarctic exploration literature.
Passing Cape Crozier, ahead of us loomed the huge white cliff of the Great Ice Barrier, the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. Discovered by James Clark Ross in 1841, it is one of the great natural wonders of the world. A vertical wall of floating ice rising 30 metres above the surface of the sea (and about 270 metres below), the edge of the ice shelf extends for 600 km. The ice shelf itself is enormous - a mass if floating ice the size of France.
Strong winds were blowing off the top of the ice shelf today, carrying snow in great sweeps down the face of the ice cliff. James Clark Ross saw it as a formidable barrier to southward travel.
Thursday 1 December 2011
The Ross Ice Shelf is about as far south as you can take a ship on this planet, so from here the only way to go is north. Our original plan was to head towards the west coast of the Ross Sea for some landings on the mainland, but the sea ice is way too thick.
Down by the Ice Shelf, we were in a large area of open water, but the current in the Ross Sea carries the ice clockwise and it has piled up against the west coast. So instead we’re heading out of the Ross Sea. We’ve spent three days breaking through the pack ice and broke into the open water of the Southern Ocean last night. It was foggy and snowing this morning. We’re now about 570 miles from Macquarie Island and skirting the eastern side of a deep low pressure system. The waves in that low are about 8 metres high, but here they are only 5 metres or so. Around us, albatrosses wheel in the wind.
These days at sea are times for lectures and other activities. This morning I lectured on the links between Wales and Antarctica and the support Scott’s expedition received from Cardiff and Wales. There was a lot of interest in our planned exhibition and a number of people have expressed an interest in coming to see it. Some are even thinking of coming from the US and combining visits to the exhibitions in London and Cardiff, which would be great.
Saturday 3 December 2011
We’ve not been on land since last Saturday. We spent three days breaking ice in the Ross Sea and another three in the rolling waters of the Southern Ocean.
It’s not been quite as calm as it was on the way south. We’ve been rolling at about 30o and pitching as well, so we’ve had an uncomfortable time being thrown about. But now land is in sight. We’re sailing along the coast of Macquarie Island. It’s in the middle of nowhere, a sliver of land in the vast southern ocean.
It’s a cold, grey, damp and foggy day. We landed near the northern end of the island at an Australian research station and staff there showed us around their facilities, which, being an Australian base, includes not only a bar, but a brewery. The station is surrounded by a sturdy fence to keep out the elephant seals, big, heavy, noisy, smelly animals that would flatten anything and everything. Outside the station, they are everywhere. The geology around here is fascinating. The island is a slice of ocean floor which has been uplifted along the boundary between the Australian and Pacific plates.
After lunch we landed at a bay on the island’s east coast on a beach crowded with King penguins and the much smaller Royal penguins with their bright yellow crests. Walking through the surf along the shore, with penguins come in and out of the water around my feet was a special experience. A short walk north along the shore took us to a colony of King penguins where it was hard to believe that the comical, dumpy, brown, fluffy ‘okum boys’ which are the immature Kings would eventually turn into such beautiful adult birds. At the back of the beach, a penguin highway busy with Royals led uphill to a huge, noisy, densly packed throng of many thousands of the birds, some with tiny chicks at their feet.
Tom Sharpe's Antarctic Diary
Thursday 24 November 2011
This morning we landed by helicopter on the beach at Cape Bird on the northwestern side of Ross Island and hiked north to an Adelie penguin rookery, with perhaps 70,000 pairs of birds.
Much smaller than Emperors, these are feisty little beasts, the most southerly breeding penguin in the world. It’s always entertaining to watch them carrying pebbles to add to their stone nests, squabbling with one another, and waddling back and forth across the ice to the water. On previous trips to Antarctica I’ve seen two Adelies go at one another with a scary degree of fury.
While we were watching the Adelies, it started to snow and we witnessed a real Antarctic scene as the black backs of the penguins turned grey and then white. The wind grew stronger and visibility dropped, so we had to abandon our landing and get everyone back to the ship.
Friday 25 November 2011
We’re now the furthestmost south ship on earth, and have the weather to prove it. Our plans today were a visit to see the facilities at the large US McMurdo Station and New Zealand’s Scott Base. Also here is the hut from Scott’s first expedition in 1902. But the weather wasn’t on our side. It’s been blowing a blizzard all day (well it is summer here, after all) with the windchill temperature down to -40, the temperature at which the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales meet.
The ship is covered in snow, the wind plastering it to the superstructure. But during a brief lull in the storm this evening, we did get a view of a partial solar eclipse, which was a great bonus. We’re staying here tomorrow to see if the weather improves enough to fly the helicopters.
Saturday 26 November
By this morning the blizzard had died down, but the wind was still too strong for the helicopters to fly. We waited all morning, then just as the ship was pulling away the wind dropped just enough. So it was a quick dash to get changed and grab a sandwich, then out to the helideck for a 20 minute flight south to the site of the hut from Captain Scott’s first expedition.
The hut is situated at the end of a long peninsula at the southern end of Ross Island. It was convenient not only for Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1902-04 but also for later Scott and Shackleton expeditions. The interior contains artefacts from all of these, most notably from the Ross Sea party of Shackleton’s Imperial Transantarctic Expedition of 1914-16. Seals killed by Shackleton’s men nearly 100 years ago lie on the verandah on top of sails from Scott’s ship. Seal blubber inside still drips oil onto the floor. Their last meal can still be seen in the frying pan.
Next to the hut is the large US base of McMurdo Station. Looking like a frontier mining town, it’s not the most attractive site in Antarctica, but it is an important staging post for the scientific field parties heading out on the ice. A short distance away is the New Zealand Scott Base which fulfills a similar role and also provides facilities for the Antarctic Heritage Trust who have been conserving the historic huts.
The view today was spectacular, across the fast ice to the high ice covered mountains of the Royal Society Range.
Tom Sharpe's Antarctic Diary
Tuesday 22 November 2011
Overnight we sailed across McMurdo Sound and pushed into the fast ice along the coast of the mainland. It was a beautiful day today, except where we wanted to be - in the mountains.
There, low cloud meant the helicopters couldn’t fly. So instead we spent the morning walking on the ice around the ship. Our presence attracted the attention of a group of Emperor penguins who were just as interested in us as we were in them. They were definitely there to have their pictures taken! They leapt in and out of the water, waddled back and forth, stood, posed and almost smiled for our cameras.
By early afternoon the weather showed signs of improvement, so we flew across the fast ice and into the Taylor Valley, one of the Dry Valleys. These are remarkable features, the largest ice-free area in the continent. Taylor Valley was discovered by Scott on his first expedition while returning from a sledging trip to explore the Polar Plateau with Edgar Evans from Rhossili on Gower.
The Dry Valleys are a polar desert where the rocks are smoothed and sculpted by sand blown by katabatic winds which hurtle down from the Antarctic ice sheet at speeds of up to 200 mph. They attract a lot of scientific attention, especially from NASA, as this is probably the closest we have to a Martian landscape and climate. It was a real thrill to experience this incredible landscape.
The valley is strewn with moraines with huge variety of rock types. Two geologists from Scott’s last expedition, Frank Debenham and Griffith Taylor, explored this valley and collected from these moraines. This gave them samples of rocks from deeper into the Transantarctic Mountains which they did not have time to explore.
Wednesday 23 November 2011
After a bright sunny night, we awoke to find ourselves back in the fast ice of Ross Island, this time offshore of Cape Evans. Visiting Shackleton’s Hut was wonderful, the Dry Valleys exceptional, but today was very much the icing on the Ross Sea cake, and for most of us, the whole reason for this trip - a visit to Captain Scott’s hut, the hut from which he left for the South Pole and to which he never returned.
Almost buried in snowdrifts, the hut has a powerful presence, seeped as it is in Antarctic history. Stepping through the door was a strange experience. In front of me was a large room that I knew well, but I was seeing it for the first time in colour. I know this hut from the famous photographs of Scott’s expedition photographer, Herbert Ponting.
I was standing where he stood, at the end of the long table, when he took the picture of Scott’s birthday. I stood between the sleeping bags of Teddy Evans and Edward Wilson, from where Ponting photographed Scott sitting at his desk. I saw the empty Tenements, the bunks of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Birdie Bowers, and Captain Oates, and could visualise them there, as in Ponting’s photograph. Above Oates’ bunk - his pinups: pictures of horses and dogs. Atkinson’s laboratory, his test tubes and equipment still on the bench; the Geologists’ Cubicle, with rocks on the floor beneath Frank Debenham’s bunk; Ponting’s darkroom, still smelling of developer and fixer; the Stables where Oates cared for the ponies, and the stove he used to heat their chaff; Clissold the cook’s galley with its stove, utensils, and canned foodstuffs; and, dividing the hut, a wall of crates of Coleman’s mustard, Fry’s chocolate and other supplies. All of these are still where Ponting photographed them a century ago.
Of course, a feeling of sadness and tragedy pervades this hut; it is almost tangible. Almost exactly 100 years ago, Scott, Oates, Bowers, Wilson and Edgar Evans left this building and set out for the South Pole and a frozen death.
Less well known is that this hut was used by Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party who were laying the depots for his doomed crossing of the continent in 1916. Three of their number lost their lives on the ice near here. A forlorn, poignant pencilled scribble beside a bunk records “Loses to date Hayward, Mack, Smith”. In their memory, their colleagues erected a wooden cross on Wind Vane Hill near the hut.
The setting of the hut was enhanced by some suitable weather today; kind enough at times to allow our helicopters in, but showing how quickly the weather can change here. Snow showers, fine spindrift, a driving wind and windchill of -10oC reminded us what conditions here can be like, even less than a month from midsummer.
Tom Sharpe's Antarctic Diary
Monday 21 November
We've continued to push south, although by a rather round about route to avoid the thickest pack ice, and passed 77o south latitude.
On the western horizon we had an incredible view of the Victoria Land coast of mainland Antarctica and the Transantarctic Mountains. To the south we could see Ross Island and Mount Erebus, the most southerly active volcano on earth.
We eventually broke through into a large area of open water as we entered McMurdo Sound. As we sailed along the west coast of Ross Island, we headed for a small bay at Cape Royds and ran the ship up onto the fast ice - thick sea ice attached to the land. From there it was a short helicopter ride ashore.
A walk of a few hundred metres took us to a sheltered little cove where, protected from the winds by a ridge of glacial moraine, there stood a small wooden building. This was the base hut of Ernest Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition of 1907-1909. A major conservation project by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust has recently completed work on the hut and its contents, and they've done a magnificent job. Tins of food are still stacked on the shelves, sledges rest on the rafters, clothing and sleeping bags lie on the beds, and crates of supplies are piled against the outside wall. To stand in this hut is awe inspiring.
On this expedition, Shackleton pioneered a route which Scott would later follow through the Transantarctic Mountains, and got within 97 nautical miles of the South Pole. Although he knew he could be the first to reach the South Pole, he turned back. He realised that if they continued they would not have enough food to make it back alive.
Shackleton took several scientists with him, one of whom was a St Fagan's born geologist, T.W. Edgeworth David, then Professor of Geology in Sydney. Based at this hut, David led the first ascent of Mount Erebus, 3795 metres high, and also led another team on a long sledging journey up onto the Polar Plateau to reach the South Magnetic Pole.
We had time to see the hut and take a walk to the most southerly penguin colony in the world, on the coast around Shackleton's hut. The Adelie penguins here provided an extra source of food for the expedition.
Instead of flying back to the ship, I opted to hike back across the fast ice to retrieve some marker flags we had laid out as a walking route in case the weather turned. This is perfectly safe as long as you keep a look out for tide cracks - fissures in the ice caused by tidal movement.
Their dangers were demonstrated when my hiking companion immediately fell into one. Luckily he went down only a couple of feet. It was just as well, as he had the rescue line.
Tom Sharpe's Antarctic Diary
Saturday 19 November
Today began grey, overcast and cold, with light snow falling on the ship. We’ve now been breaking our way through the pack ice of the Ross Sea for three days, picking our way south through whatever open leads or thin ice present themselves.
On the southern horizon, in places, open water shows up as dark reflections on the underside of the cloud - a ‘water sky’. In other places, we see ice blink, where the clouds are brightened by the presence of the sea ice beneath. Our navigation through the pack is aided by satellite positioning; Scott relied upon dead reckoning and the sun to chart his progress.
This afternoon we sighted land for the first time in five days. Away to the west we’ve had our first glimpse of the continent of Antarctica. The faint, white, distant mountains rise to over 3500 metres. Appropriately, one of the first we see, Mount Murchison, is named after a geologist who worked in Wales 180 years ago.
We set course for the mainland, a point called Cape Washington, but the pack ice is too thick, even for our icebreaker. Instead, we’re continuing south, deeper into the Ross Sea, in the hope of breaking out of the pack and into a polynya, which satellite pictures show lies to the south of us.
Sunday 20 November
It’s been slow getting through the pack ice, but we’ve finally made it to Franklin Island, at 76o south.
The ice is thick around the island, but we got within 5 miles of it, so we took the helicopters and landed on the sea ice at the foot of steep black cliffs. From there we hiked about a mile and half south across the ice to a large colony of Emperor penguins at the southeastern end of the island. These are the stars of the movies March of the Penguins and Happy Feet. They walk long distances across the ice to breed, and after the egg is laid it is transferred to the male who then stands on the ice through the severe Antarctic winter holding it on his feet.
The males in the colony huddle together against the cold. The march of the penguins was first observed by Captain Scott on his first expedition. Their chicks are some of the cutest things on the planet and infitinely photogenic. We have a couple of examples of Emperor penguins in our collections in Cardiff, including one presented to us by Lt Teddy Evans of Scott’s last expedition, and that will be in January.
Tom Sharpe's Antarctic Diary
Friday 18 November
It’s just over a hundred years since Captain Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, sailed from Cardiff for Antarctica.
Scott designated Cardiff the home port of his ship because of the support his expedition received from Cardiff and South Wales. Last year we put together a little exhibition bringing together a range of objects from our collections to commemorate the departure of the expedition on 15 June 1910.
On 17 January 1912, Scott and his four companions reached the South Pole only to find that he had been beaten, by a month, by a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen. The fate of Scott’s Polar Party is well-known: all five died on the return journey. But there was much more to Scott’s expedition than the attempt on the Pole. It was a major scientific expedition, studying the geology, biology, meteorology and physics of Antarctica and its glaciers.
We’re planning another exhibition, , opening in January 2012, to look at the Welsh links with Scott’s expedition and the scientific work undertaken on it. We’re part of a national series of exhibitions and events to mark the centenary of the expedition. I’ve been working on this exhibition for some months now, but about four weeks ago my preparations took an exciting turn when I was invited to join a trip to the Ross Sea in Antarctica, with the intention of visiting Scott’s expedition base hut.
We sailed a week ago from Lyttleton in the South Island of New Zealand, the same port from which Scott sailed in 1910. Two days ago, we entered the pack ice of the Ross Sea. Each winter, the continent of Antarctica doubles in size as the sea around it freezes. I’m on a Russian icebreaker. We’ve been following leads - strips of open water between the ice floes - and where necessary forcing our way through the thicker floes. We do this by ramming into the ice, then reversing a few hundred metres before ploughing full ahead into the floe and hopefully breaking through. Breaking our way through the ice feels very much like being in the central seats of a 747 in bad turbulence, but much noisier.
We’ve been making good progress, initially through thin first year ice (formed this last winter) and then into an area of open water called a polynya. But today we’ve slowed. The pack ice we’re in now is much thicker, over a metre thick in places. This is multi-year ice, built up over several winters. At 70oS, we’re now well south of the Antarctic Circle and in continuous daylight. Here the sun will not set for some months.
Some of the ice floes are forced together by the pressure of tides and currents and today we found ourselves caught between two floes. This pressure caused the floes to close behind us, and for a while we were trapped in the ice. Even with all engines on full power, we could neither advance or reverse. But just as we were beginning to decide who we would eat first, the ice floes parted and we were released from their grip!
All around us there is nothing but sea ice to the horizon in all directions. The ice surface is not smooth, but broken by the jagged lines of pressure ridges and the occasional enormous tabular iceberg frozen into the pack ice. It looks lifeless. There are no other human beings as far as the eye can see. But life is here. This morning an orca, a killer whale, popped up to take a look at us; minke whales show their fins through the open water of the leads; and crabeater seals bask on the ice floes. Clusters of Adelie penguins rush around on the ice while, in contrast, a stately Emperor penguin stands tall and imperious on the edge of a floe.
There is no environment on earth to compare.