Into the Frozen Ross Sea

Today we set sail! We are due to depart at 10 AM, so everyone must be on the boat at 9. McMurdo Station has been wonderful, but it’s time for the next portion of our adventure. But first, our mighty icebreaker has an important job to do. The pier is actually sea ice, and it is supposed to float. It is presently too close to shore, and there are concerns it is not floating freely and might crack. So, the RVIB N.B.Palmer has been tasked with hauling it back to its original position.

We chug backwards and forwards for quite some time, clearing ice to allow space for the ship to maneuver and for the dock itself. The motion of the ship and the swirling water below turn over large chunks of thick sea ice between three feet and five feet thick. We are excited to see the very substantial coating of algae including diatoms, which look brown, on the bottom of the pieces that have been overturned. These algae and diatoms support a host of creatures including krill (tiny shrimp-like organisms) and ice fish.

Some of us have wondered how Scott’s party could possibly have gotten their wooden sailing ship into where McMurdo now sits, but it’s because the sea ice is not typically as extensive as it is today. The abundance of sea ice this summer could be due to a variety of factors, including natural multi-year variability as well as increased glacial melting, causing more fresh water to pour into the Ross Sea. Fresh water freezes sooner—at a higher temperature—than salty sea water.

Once we are underway, it’s time for safety briefings. We learn how to don our life-jackets and cumbersome but potentially life-saving “Gumby” (immersion) suits—vital in case we must abandon ship—and climb into one of the two main lifeboats. The lifeboats are designed to keep up to 76 people alive and are well stocked with food, water, and first aid supplies. Later, we’re issued hardhats and flotation jackets and learn how to stay safe on the aft decks where oceanographic equipment, such as the megacorer, will be used.

Ivia models the latest in immersion fashion

Soon, most of us are out on deck, on the bridge, or visiting the ice tower for its expansive views as we break ice through the Ross Sea. Weddell seals, with their sleek spotted coats and endearing faces, abound. They belly-inch away from the oncoming ship, like giant black ice slugs.

There’s no experience quite like pounding through ice in a large icebreaker. For part of our journey through the frozen sea, there is something of an ice-chocked channel, but passage is difficult and progress slow. Frequently, the ship stops, backs up, and pushes with more power, forcing the bow up onto the ice to break it, or simply maneuvering past thicker ice. The ice growls and bangs against the hull, tumbling over itself and flipping large slabs.

Before us lie many miles of frozen water, then the Southern Ocean and science!


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