Fire and Ice

By Cindy Furse · December 6, 2010 ·
Mount Erebus, our resident volcano, towers above our camp on a sunny day yet disappears completely in the snow.  The summit elevation of Mount Erebus, is 12,448 ft (3,794 meters).  Photo credit: Cindy Furse
Antarctica in its spring time is a supremely beautiful, wild, rugged landscape.
Mount Erebus, our resident volcano, towers above our camp on a sunny day yet disappears completely in the snow. The summit elevation of Mount Erebus, is 12,448 ft (3,794 meters). Photo credit: Cindy Furse 

Today the sky is blue, and light clouds slowly meander across it. Mount Erebus, apparently a very calm volcano, rises easily above us, gently wafting steam into the blue sky, like a small and gentle cloud at its peak. The frozen sea on which we live and work is a gentle, flat base for the mountain valley in which we find ourselves.

The black volcanic cliffs at Cape Royds drop sharply to black sand beaches. The sea ice is starting to break up here. Last week there was some open water, so this week the ice has overlaid and refrozen in magical patterns for as far as we can see. Photo credit: David Lubbers 

Two days ago we visited Scott and Shackleton’s huts and a penguin colony to the north along the coast. Where we are working is an ice sheet and everything is snow ice white. On the coast where the huts are, the wind has scoured away much of the snow, leaving their volcanic rock windswept and exposed in a dusty, rough rough rough rough landscape. If you walked barefoot on these very frozen beaches, one step would shred the undersides of your bare feet. The 2″soles on our extreme cold weather (ECW) boots insulate us from both the cold and the lacerating roughness of this beach. They also make it rather difficult to navigate its boulders and we hike a mile or so along its cliffy edge. Below us, the sea is frozen into silence. The waves move only microscopically. The tides show only in tidal cracks that push sometimes dangerous ever-changing plates of snow against the frozen beach, and draw back into wide tidal cracks. Don’t worry. The Haaglund in which we rode here is an aquatic vehicle with bilge pumps to draw out the water in case it falls in, and a roof window to climb out of it the water gets above the height of the door. When you are walking, just pay attention and step or jump over the cracks. The frozen sea meets the frozen beach and we scramble up a steep ascent of ice and volcanic rock, to look down on a magnificent vista of ice sheets you can see right through, layered on top of each other as they melted and floated and refroze only to melt and move again. A few seal holes are home and access to a few contented seals who have lazily beached themselves to enjoy the sun. They barely flop a flipper at us as we go by in the Hagglund or on foot. Their immense blubbery shapes seem about as cumbersome as our ECW boots on the land, but in the water they have the freedom to glide and twist at great speed. The ever-changing frozen sea is below us, below us down a steep cliff. Behind us is a landscape, almost like what I imagine the moonscape may feel like, of frozen volcanic boulders, interspersed with snow and ice, carved by the winds into wild, icy twists of black and white.

This is what my eyes see.

It is -8.5 C with a wind chill factor. The wind scours this valley, sandpapering us and everything else with gentle ice sand that is rough and abrasive in the wind. I am bundled up in three jackets, layered, plus two pair of gloves, a light polypropylene layer and a windproof outer layer (my favorite gloves this trip). I wear glasses or goggles for my eyes, and my nose runs. I am warm, except for a few edges of my cheeks or nose that accidentally find themselves in the path of the rasping ice wind.

This is what my skin feels.

Our base camp is run by Antarctic outfitter, scientist, and legend, Dr. Tim Haskell. The green shipping containers are outfitted with heated lab space, electricity, bunks, and a small kitchen. We sit on a 2.5 meter thick sheet of first year sea ice that makes a perfectly flat valley surrounded by volcanos, ice sheets and glaciers. Photo credit: David Lubbers 

The huge generator engine in our camp thrums gently, constantly, steadily. The scientists here, us included, need electricity and support for our experiments. We (Cindy, Joyce, Ken, David) are drilling ice cores and measuring their electrical properties, temperature and salinity. Malcolm and Sean are measuring electrical properties from an array they buried under the ice months ago. Greg and Joe are surveying the imperceptible shifting of the ice sheet. Sam and Alison are measuring the minute ice waves that the ocean below produces on our otherwise immobile ice

The sea ice we are studying has channels of brine (silver channels from left to right in this picture) making up columnar ice in the first meter or so and a jumble of platelets (flat ice pieces about 1-2” in diameter and 1mm thick) nearer the bottom. We brought out a core of ice, and Pat Langhorne, New Zealand Physicist and leader of the Sea Ice Group at the University of Otago, sliced it and made it thin enough to shine light through so we could see the crystal structure. Photo credit: Ken Golden 

surface. Pat and Stefan are making beautiful glass-like ice plates where we can see the ice crystals in our cores. The thrumming generator is also the rock of support for the heat our fingers crave, that our bodies need. I cover my ears from the wind. Sometimes when I come inside I think I still hear it. When we walk or ski away from camp, just a short ways, all of these sounds go away, except the wind. That is when this place is most beautiful, when its remote ruggedness is most embracing. Sometimes a fat grey sea bird called a ‘skewa’ (in that marvelous New Zealand speak) flies near. Twice we have heard them call, a bit like a sea gull. The skua is a curious and unafraid creature, trusting us, and hoping we will give it bits of food. We do not, but we think warm thoughts in its direction. It is unimpressed and takes flight.

This is what our ears hear.

The generator provides the electricity to make hot tea to warm my fingers and dinner to warm my very hungry belly. And Tim, the camp legend, bakes fresh bread in a bread machine each morning. That is a small spring miracle when a loaf arrives each morning. The food boxes here have an unpredictable assortment of crackers, cheese (good, aged, cheddar), soups, pasta or rice, cereal, powdered milk (that actually dissolves in water, unlike that dreck of the same name in the states), oatie slices (a local granola bar), cookies, sauce packets, a bit of frozen meat, frozen or dehydrated veggies, and back packing food packs. Putting meals together for 13 hungry scientists is a bit of a trick, but everything tastes good here. It is almost dinner time, and a magnetic smell of warm calories with a nameless sauce draws the camp of researchers together, shuffling gently in our heavy boots. The scientists laugh, joke, and exchange ideas and thoughts about their test results. Everything tastes good here.

This is what my belly feels.

Our noses are uncooperative in this frozen climate. I discover that my only major packing flaw was lack of several boxes of Kleenex. Never mind, there is TP, but it is a bit raspy, like the wind. The smell of fresh bread is a delight. Hot black tea is an important comfort food. There is chamomile, too. I think I will try that today, as the 24 hour sun and brittle cold keep me highly charged, energetic, alert, awake, intense. Fresh coffee is brewed almost constantly. Dinner always smells good.

When we visited the penguin colony I was a bit surprised at their smell. Not so nice. Kind of stinky. I guess that an entire rookery of hundreds of small penguins, nesting and pooping on their city streets, in the same rookery grounds for the last hundreds of years, is likely to have a bit of a smell, even in the frozen cold air. There were also several dead penguins in the Scott hut, shot over a hundred years ago, waiting all of these hundred years to be eaten for dinner. They were still frozen, but didn’t smell particularly appealing either.

Mostly, though, my frozen nose just seeks the shelter of my neck gaiter and balaclava. It will thaw out back in New Zealand where I remember that it was quite a tropical paradise this time of year.

When white light shines through a crystal of ice, it is polarized along the axis of the crystal. If the crystals are oriented in random directions, as they are in this sample of platelet ice, a polarizing lens shows the direction of each group of ice crystals with a different color. Photo credit: Ken Golden 

These are the senses that my body experiences in Antarctica, but they do not fully describe the experience here. There is more. The sheer roughness of this place is expressed in the wildness of the Erebus volcano with its plume of gentle steam emerging from its quiet, frozen peak, barely hinting at its boiling internal fire and the sheer explosive power of the molten magma that spewed forth the coarse, rough, cutting sand in the black volcanic beaches against the frozen sea, the black volcanic rock tumbled about in the lunar landscape behind it, almost devoid of wind blown snow, and the occasional misplaced granite boulder tossed miles into the sky to land on this beach barely earth moments ago. This is a wild place, a rough place, a place where rugged remoteness is everywhere except for the tiny dot of our warm camp. The experience here for me is an embrace of fire and ice, like a man’s rough stubble rubbed against a woman’s soft cheek. It is a rough embrace that draws me close and enters my soul. The fire, the ice, the wildness of it all … Antarctica engulfs me in its rough embrace.

Rough Embrace

Ice Mountain, Erebus, towers over me,

Volcanic Fire in its hot belly.

Wafting gentle smoke into the frozen air,

Molten Magma churning invisibly beneath the frozen sea.

Ice Sea laps into broken waves of blue ice on

Black Sand Beaches, burning my skin

As grains of sand mixed with ice crystals

Burn, Rasp, Grate in the frozen sea wind.

Ice crystal prisms, fragile ice slices from beneath the ice sea,

Make lacy rainbow beauty beneath the polarizers,

Kaleidescoping, magically drawing me deep

To where platelet ice floats in the briney black sea.

In the night, I dream swimming through the ice crystals,

Midnight sunlight casting brilliant lances of light through the ice glass,

As the blazing electric current I have become dives, tumbles, bends,

Coarsing through salty brine rivers and twisting between the frozen platelets.

The fire and ice dichotomy that is Antarctica

Grasps me roughly in its blazingly cold embrace,

Kissing my skin, my eyes, my fingertips

With ice that turns my heart, my soul, my mind to Antarctic fire.

About the author

 

Dr. Cindy Furse is a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the U. She is also the Assoc. VP for Research.
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One response to “Fire and Ice

  1. Pingback: Dichotomy | cfurse

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