#AntarcticAlphabet: I is for ice

Ice strains, cracks and sometimes breaks, under the burden, slips and slides, does not stay in place, does not stay still.

Glaciers, like poems, appear solid, inevitable, perfect at their heart, but are not. Impermanent ice weathers like epigraphs in the graveyard, words written on the changing world. Rivers flow, scouring even as they slide on hidden lakes, their turbulent, turbid meltwater accelerating evolution.

The eye sees ice at some 475 nanometers wavelength, blue and indigo shattering to whites and greys. Infinite shading, grey gravitas, eye-watering white, even hints of buried green, emerge from the shaping of wind and liquid water. Twisting ice groans and the calving berg thunders as  it crashes  from the heights, the roar of the ice shocking after the high pitched tinkle and rattle and crackles of penny pieces colliding in the still fjord or in the lee of a giant tabular berg on the open ocean.

Island B15, one of  biggest bergs ever recorded,  broke off the Ross Shelf in 2000 and drifted north. It took over five years to break up, become small enough to meld into the floes, vanish in pack ice. The biggest but by no means alone, B15 was an early star of such bergs, helicopters placing instruments to measure its drift and decline. B15 was 295km long and 37km wide, nearly 11000 km square, bigger than Jamaica. Bigger than the land area of the Maldives, of Nauru or Vanuatu. Even this monolith was dwarfed by one seen off Scott Island in 1956: which was bigger than Belgium.

Big icebergs can sink ships: ask the Titanic. The growlers and bergy bits are  melting chunks prowling the currents, the small air-bound section sailing the underground spikes in the breeze. The sunken 90% can severe timbers and puncture steel. Harder to see, invisible to radar, these smaller remnants  are the immediate danger to those afloat in high latitudes. Ships may sink, as did the Antarctic, or be crushed by pack-ice refreezing in turbulent spring temperatures. So Endurance was lost. In such battles, crew and passengers may die. Fuel may leak, spreading its poison to penguins, littering shorelines with corpses. Yet these tragedies are local, near time, contained. Ice in the sea is more dangerous than that.

The sea squirts of Potter  Cove cannot escape the silt brought off the hills, while the crabs in Palmer Deep bide their time, waiting for warmer water and the killing fields of the Peninsula. Predictions of melting ice-sheets proliferate like bergs in the autumn sea, uncertain as to timescale but determined as to the challenge. Only  the most  committed denier hangs on to faith  in the face of the evidence of freshwater released into oceans on a massive scale.

The peoples of the Pacific cannot, like the prosperous European lowlands, build new walls and live below sea level. They are watching the waves rise to take their palm trees and tourist hotels and guano mines, creeping upwards as Ross and Larsen and Greenland spawn ice mountains. Such islanders  cannot move to B15, plant crops and grow chickens on the elevated icefields, or the great tabular bergs which ground in the secret shallows of the cold-current fringes of the continent. The economic opportunities presented by the diminishing ice are not opening for them.

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