We’ve moved to the other side of the Peninsula, the eastern edge of the five-hundred-mile long finger jutting out of the continent, into the Weddell Sea. We tried to get in here last year, by sailboat and kayak, but were shut out. The winter of 2007 had been a particularly cold one, even by Antarctic standards, and the entry to the Antarctic Sound had been blocked long into summer by a pair of giant icebergs, each tens of miles long. That blockage, combined with a lack of wind, meant that where we had hoped to paddle – circumnavigating Vega and James Ross islands – was choked by frozen sea, passes between the islands still filled by one and two year old ice.
This year is very, very different. The winter of 2008 was warmer and windier and even though we’re a day away from the official start of summer, much of the Weddell is already clear of the same kind of thick pack we saw last year.
That said, it is never a picnic over here. Though sunny and bright, I take a long walk today and nearly lost the tip of my nose to frostbite. The biggest worry here, this time of year? Sunburn. The combination of the atmospheric ozone hole and all the bright snow, ice and sea that surrounds means sun block is as necessary as Gore-tex.The landscape on this side of the Peninsula is very different. The islands are short-hilled and rust-colored, stark. Other than a solitary Argentine base, there’s no one around for one hundred miles, and you sense that remoteness. Only a couple of the dozens of tourist boats that prowl the Peninsula each austral summer comes here. More than 100,000 sizable bergs calve off the Antarctic continent each year, about one-third of them come from the glaciers lining the Weddell Sea. Remember in 2002, when a chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island dramatically broke off from the Larsen B ice shelf? The Larsen B is just south of where I am today and some of that ice and its brothers and sisters are still grounded here. As I write I’m standing alongside a flat-topped berg a few stories tall and at least two miles long.
The ice here is different too. The sky is bright blue, the wind howling at thirty to forty miles an hour and I spend the better part of an hour looking through a spotting scope towards Seymour Island, following “the pack” being pushed by wind and current. It is miles wide, floating on the surface, exactly what you would not want to get caught in. Imagine being surrounded by a fast-moving pack tens of miles wide, unable to escape. You could be stuck for days, or worse.
The Weddell’s icebergs are mean and tough too, none of that soft, slushy stuff you might see at this time of year on the western side of the Peninsula. Hit one of these, and you’ll suffer. They are extremely hard, toughened by years of extreme cold and wind, often studded just below the surface by giant, sharp continental rock. Even the name of the water here is ominous – the Terror and Erebus Gulf – named for a pair of historical wooden sailing ships that first risked exploring the region.
At the north end of the channel, I take a longer walk on Paulet Island, known for its 100,000 pairs of nesting Adelies. There are so many birds it is nearly impossible to clamber up the boulder-strewn beach. Beneath many of the adult birds peek the first chicks I’ve seen this year. As the day goes on, the sky grows evermore blue, the winds stronger.
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