Out of Drake Passage and into the ice

January 13, 2010

Stormy weather in Drake Passage made everyone sea sick.

Ted writes:

Much has happened since our last entry; the rough Drake Passage took a day from everyone. We spent the following days, with calmer seas but grey skies, preparing and testing equipment on the ship. Our first attempt to reach the Larsen B Embayment area was blocked by thick rounded floes on the southeast side of the large James Ross Island, which sits like a small white pea under the bony fingertip of the Peninsula. So we took a chance on the Prince Gustav Channel, to the west, between James Ross Island and the main Peninsula. This passage was filled by impenetrable ice shelf until 1995; and so what we were attempting would have been impossible just 15 years ago. But in this year, a solid sheet of landfast sea ice filled the channel from coast to coast, with no breaks or floes. The hope was that this ice would snap neatly under the cutting prow of the ship.

It looked good at first, with open water in the north, but near the 64 degree S line we saw a thin white sheet laying across our path. The ship plowed through it like butter, at first. But as we approached the mouths of two large glaciers, we were stopped again. Chunks of glacier ice from last summer had drifted into the channel, and were trapped by the ice, congealed into very thick fast ice and hard blue glacial blocks. The  Palmer might still have crossed the frozen obstacle course, but at the risk of being in a position where forward was the only option.

While considering options, the weather cleared. We found ourselves in an absolutely magnificent landscape of ice, rock, sky, and ocean. You get the sense that here there is a landscape struggling to emerge from the ice, that there is a land of canyons and mesas slowly pushing out from beneath the white mantle

After crossing the Drake Passage, the Palmer found itself in a magnificent landscape.

We decided late Sunday afternoon to conduct a day of science on Monday. We activated the helocopters, gave the pilots some practice as well as the science teams. One group visited rock outcrops to the west; the glacier team (Erin Pettit and Martin Truffer) went to the large glacier on James Ross Island. Other groups collected ice and water samples, and a separate helo flight scouted the sea ice route to the south.

On the ship, the AMIGOS team (Terry Haran, Ronald Ross, and Ted Scambos) readied the first AMIGOS ‘skeletons’ and tested their instruments and some new software. We have five instruments on these systems: a camera, a weather station, a sun sensor, a thermistor string, and a GPS; more on these and the science objectives behind them later.

Sunday night, with clear calm weather and a near-midnight sun, the light and sky were extraordinary. Brooding mountains, a firey sunset, and an ethereal moonrise behind the ice amazed everyone. There was a quiet reverence on the ship: it was truly awesome.

The moon rises over the ice.

This evening (Monday) we are now embarked on an even greater gamble than before; we believe the ice is impassable ahead, but melting; an so we are going to the west side of the Peninsula for perhaps three weeks to try to do some work and wait for conditions here to improve. The west side is currently completely sea ice free, and we will try to conduct some of the science by using the helicopters to fly over the ridge of the Peninsula to the east side. The gamble is that the weather is rarely good on both sides of the ridge at once. But the AMIGOS and ice team is ready to give it a shot. We will be in place on the west side by Thursday morning.


  1. Ted!
    Stunning! That moonrise… And you do an excellent job of sharing the adventure of discovery and being down there. Now if that job of media capture and storytelling gets, you know, more than you want with all your other responsibilities, I’d be happy to help. I am not done with Antarctica.

    Wishing you more excellent weather and beautiful light luck! And Happy New Year.

    ~ ~ Lisa

  2. Risky indeed! Good Luck!

    The Danco Coast looks beautiful, I’m terribly jealous.

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