Moai on Easter Island

Moai on Easter Island

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Not So Frozen and Dead

Adelie Penguin at the ice edge
 So far Antarctica has seemed like very static place.  Everything is frozen and unmovable.  I know things change and move.  Every time I go out on the sea ice things are different.  New cracks appear or old cracks close back up.  But I don’t get to see these things.  For all I know they happen magically.  I know glaciers move and ice falls off cliffs, but again I don’t see it actually happening.  

Loon-like Emperor Penguins
When you don’t see things move and change before your eyes it is as if they never do.  The only things here that I have seen move are people, penguins and fuel-powered machines.  The wind is ever present and changes the landscape with sand or snow and seals will occasionally lift a flipper or roll over, but the landscape rarely changes before my eyes.  All seems frozen and dead.

Adelie Penguins
Adelie Penguins

Last week Antarctica became a dynamic and living thing [place] to me.  I got to go out to the edge of the sea ice for some more training.  Everything was moving and changing before my eyes.  Giant snow flakes fell, real snow flakes, not harsh, sand-like snow that the Antarctic wind violently drives into your skin, but the fluffy kind that float down with the promise of a coming powder day. 

Snow Petrel
The waves of the open ocean moved the ice flow up and down in front of us.  Small ice chunks that I had stood on moments before began to float further into the ocean with only our footprints remaining.  Life was everywhere.  Penguins ended their awkward waddling on land by carelessly throwing themselves into the water becoming agile creatures.  The Emperor Penguins reminded me of loons and the Adelie Penguins seemed more like ducks in the water.   The edge of the ice completely changed shape in the few hours we were there.  Watching the ice move with the ocean and seeing a whole other aspect of penguin life made for one of the best days in Antarctica so far.

Garwood Valley

Two days later I flew across McMurdo Sound to the Garwood Valley to help out with some Lidar scanning.  It felt like I was back in a high mountain valley back in the States.  The only thing missing were small alpine plants and krumholtz trees--there was nothing there that I could even pretend to be plant-like.  The lower glacier is covered in many feet of sand and rock and ice is exposed where the stream has carved a canyon through the glacier.  The exposed ice melts in the incessant solar radiation causing small rock falls that are the only sound in the valley.

Lower Garwood Glacier with layers of sediment in it
Our ride to the Garwood Valley

During our day in the valley the small frozen stream came alive.   A rush of water came down in the middle of the afternoon and would cover the ice and the weight was crush the ice and then the water would fill up the space underneath the ice further cracking it and pushing the ice up.  The flow of water lasted for hours.  This dead frozen valley was alive with rushing water and the silence was broken for a day.
The flow of water coming through the Garwood Valley

Looking west up the Garwood Valley

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