Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Circle South America: Antarctica - The Lost Continent

Dear Family and Friends,

It has been an interesting three days since we left the end of the world and have been cruising below the Antarctic Circle. Weather conditions have prevented us from reaching our destination at Half Moon Bay which is at about 70° south latitude. Low clouds, high winds (gusting up to 80 knots), high seas (average on Monday was 24 feet), rain and snow all combined to keep us cruising at the top of the Antarctic Peninsula. The stretch we are in is called “Iceberg Alley” and with good reason. We have seen hundreds of icebergs, some as large as our vessel, along with sea lions, fur seals, penguins, Snow Petrels (kind of like a sea gull) and an occasional South Royal Albatross.

The icebergs in this area are huge portions of ice that have “calved” or broken away from the Antarctic ice shelf and are pushed by the tides, currents and winds into the South Pacific Ocean and the South Atlantic Ocean but mostly below the 60° latitudes. The huge “flat top” bergs are called Tabular Icebergs. The larger one you see in my pictures that looks like it has a carved out or cave looking area on the left end was about 600 feet long and 130 feet tall. The top of it was taller than Deck 12 on our ship. To be designated an iceberg; the top portion sticking above the surface of the ocean must be a minimum of 10 feet tall. Only about one sixth of an iceberg is above the surface which means if 10 feet is showing there is 50 feet of ice below the surface. Ice that has less than 10 feet showing are called “growlers” and there are literally thousands of these smaller ice floaters in this area which is why we actually have an “Ice Pilot” on board to help navigate us safely through these waters.

We have gotten a good look at Deception Island and the famous Elephant Island, which most of my pictures show. It has been the only island this far south at which we have gotten even a decent look. Prior to this trip I always thought Antarctica was just a huge sheet of ice, but it is actually a true continent with land under the ice which is approximately 4.5 million square miles or about the equivalent size of the contiguous United States and Mexico combined. Antarctica is the coldest (- 127.3° F), driest (it rains less here than in the Sahara Desert), windiest (198 miles per hour) and highest (average elevation 7,500 feet) continent on earth. Ice covers all but 2.4 % of the land and the bedrock in Eastern Antarctica is covered with an amazing 15,669 feet of ice….that is nearly three miles thick!

The amount of ice in Antarctica is staggering. It contains 90 % of all the ice on the planet and 70 % of all the fresh water in the world. Ice thousands of feet deep weighs on itself, compressing the ice crystals and transforming them from regular ice into glacial ice, which has plasticity and can stretch and flow. Sheets of glacial ice formed on land move out over the continental shelf like pancake batter spreading in all directions until they expand beyond the shoreline and form huge shelves of ice that reach out into the sea. The largest of these shelves is the Ross Ice Shelf which is the size of France and the Ronne-Filcher Ice Shelf which is about the size of California. The Lambert Glacier, the largest glacier in Antarctica is 125 miles wide and 320 miles long. It is curious how all this ice got here since scientists agree no rain has fallen in the dry valleys for two million years.

The Great Southern Continent was only speculated to be there until the 18th Century, when Captain James Cook was the first to sail below the Antarctic Circle at 66° 38’ south latitude and finally to 71° south where they could have spotted land, or more accurately, ice covered land had they not been tormented by fog, wind, ice and icebergs on January 30, 1774. Due to weather and inability to negotiate the icebergs, no one landed on the continent until Captain John Davis and the American crew of the sealing ship, Huron, landed at Hughes Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula on February 7, 1821.

From its discovery on, many brave men started expeditions to explore the interior of the continent and attempts to locate the South Pole were continually frustrated by the harsh conditions of this inhospitable place. Finally, Norwegian Roald Amundsen from Oslo set out from their base camp at the Bay of Whales with four men, four sledges and fifty-two dogs on October 19th and reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911.

In 1914 famed British explorer, Earnest Shackleton, announced he would “cross the continent from sea to sea via the pole”. The British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition set sail on August 3rd on the Endurance. But by January 19, 1915 the Endurance was stuck fast in pack ice and the party had to winter over until spring. However, ice flows crushed the ship in the spring and the expedition was forced to use their tender boats to escape. For over a year they made their way to the relative safety of King George Island at the top of the South Shelton Islands. At one point, 22 of his men had to “camp out” on Elephant Island for five months while Shackleton and five of his men traveled the 600 miles of open sea in a 22.5 foot dingy to reach the whaling village on King George Island and return to rescue his men. Surprisingly, no one died and as you can see by the photos, Elephant Island is no place to vacation.

Seas and winds are calmer today but we still have fog, rain and occasional snow with low visibility. We will be hanging out here for another day to try to catch a break in the weather but then head north to Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands and arrive on Friday if all goes as planned.
Until then, God bless you all,

Jud and Vicki

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