We should have been half way back to New Zealand by now. Instead we’re enjoying our sixth day at 66˚41’ S, 144˚18’. ETA in New Zealand in the best case scenario is 9 January – 5 days late.
Regardless, there was lots of excitement today. This morning’s briefing provoked much discussion. We talked about the contingency plan if the Aurora Australis and Xue Long/ Snow Dragon are unable to free us. And the fact that it was probably a 50-50 chance as to whether it would have to be put into action.
We are of course still hoping that the ice breakers will be successful. But if they aren’t, then the plan is that we will be helicoptered onto the Aurora Australis, joining them as they return to Casey, continue their refuelling and restocking, and then their return trip to Hobart.
The big change in expectations came about because of the new sea ice satellite photo that had been released overnight. It showed a big change. A massive area of ice which had been in place for over a decade has shifted away from the fast ice area to the west of us during the blizzard conditions we had last week. It’s now piled up close to us – and it’s very possible that it may now become fast ice around here for some years.
After the questions at the briefing about what, where and when, I found myself thinking about how this was a really interesting insight into the interaction between weather, climate, sea-ice, and the natural environment; and the timescales that changes occur on. The ice that has shifted was once part of the Ross ice shelf, a massive part of which broke off over a decade ago. When this event happened it was big news at the time because lots of ice established itself off Cape Crozier, impacting on the health of a significant Emperor Penguin colony.
Where ice is, where it moves from and to also impacts on the formation of Antarctic bottom water. This is significant because it is this deep cold high nutrient water which is so important to fisheries and the health of ocean ecosystems in the mid latitudes where it finally comes to the surface decades later.
I’m also really intrigued to learn more about the relationship of areas of fast ice, Antarctic gyres, the ocean areas clear of ice – the polynas which form because of the massive katabatic winds off the continent, and the formation of low pressure systems. Back in my previous life studying climate science my honours thesis was on where lows around Antarctica were born and died. There are specific locations of cyclogenesis and cyclolysis around the continent. How do these relate to where ice is and isn’t? How is climate change affecting this? I’ve got some conversations to have with climate scientists when I get home!
As I’ve written previously, the changes we are seeing on this trip can’t be attributed to global warming but they are just the sort of changes that will be expected to occur and occur more often as we continue to warm the planet.
But back to today! We had the excitement of having the helicopter from the Snow Dragon do a sortie over us ( and the ice) this afternoon. I had two fun excursions onto the snow and ice fields around us, talking to penguins, enjoying snow ball fights, falling over in often thigh deep snow and jumping around with a small group of others doing Antarctic inspired interpretive dance! And then this same group of ‘dancers’ became a flash mob during our evening briefing - doing the new dance sensation, the ‘ice core’. It was videoed. When you see it I’m sure you’ll agree it should go viral!
We’ll know by lunchtime tomorrow, once the Aurora Australis has arrived at the edge of the ice pack and the two Captains have assessed how things look. Stay tuned: with the media interest in our fate, the Guardian and the BBC embedded in the expedition, and Chris Turney’s passion to communicate with the world as things are happening you’ll probably know as soon as we do how things are unfolding.