For all the sadness of my last post this has really been a pretty amazing week at McMurdo. Each year we have an ice breaker come in to cut a path into our harbor. It's a contract boat and rarely spends any time breaking up the ice outside of the main shipping lane. What this has meant in the past is that we don't get a lot of open water here. Sure the lane they cut widens with the tide and sure some of the ice blows out but it is rarely that big of deal.
Not so this year.
For reasons partly unknown we have been treated to an amazing amount of open water. After a slow start in which it looked like we would have no open water we all began to watch with amazement as it slowly started to creep around Observation Hill. Ob Hill is the border to our little town and while it often gets some melt pools it's really rare to theoretically be able to swim from one edge of town to the other edge. There was amazement when this happened, amazement that only increased as it began to round Ob Hill, fully encircling it with water.
Surely we thought, this will be the best it gets.
But then a storm moved in, a storm that many consider to be one of the biggest storms in this area of the world in over 20 years. This is the same storm that sunk the Berserk sailboat, taking 3 of it's crew into the cold, cold, deep. The same storm that brought 180knot winds and 10 meter waves to the area, that repelled a NZ warship. When it finally lifted and the clouds cleared out of the bay what remained was nothing short of amazing. A huge channel of water had been cut all the way to within a few hundred feet of Scott Base, the new zealand station. It's almost 2 miles away.
I paid a visit to Scott Base shortly after this happened to see the view from that angle. It was amazing: huge icebergs, having been calved off the permanent ice shelf, were floating around. The ice that approached the shore could be seen to rise and sink with the tide, each passage up and down marked by the eerie sound of ice scrapping against each other, against land. A sound as beautiful as it was foreign.
But surely we thought, that was the best we were going to get. Open water within 200 feet of Scott Base. Pretty remarkable, to be sure.
You know where this is going. Lots of days of strong winds and wave action have continued this cycle and the ice breakup moved forward, moved inward, getting closer and closer to the ice that is never supposed to leave, the ice that is hundreds of feet thick, the ice that supports our main road and our airfield.
The alarm rang through the station, like any other rumor, and it was met with disbelief. The water had been sighted within a football field distance of our road. Satellite imagery revealed how close it was getting and also revealed massive, massive chunks of floating ice, ice that had calved from the permanent ice shelf. This has become an historic breakout.
Each day we would watch this stuff get blown past McMurdo, out to the sea. On calm days you could just see water from here to the mountains, over 25 miles away. The water invaded Scott Base, dragging away the ice that scrapped and made such sweet sounds. The water rounded Scott base and started to tear away at the pressure ridges -- an area of immense beauty, where the permanent ice meets the temporary ice, a courtship that creates these beautiful upheavals of ice that twist as they reach toward the sky and bend as the wind carves into them. A sight so beautiful it could only been created by all the forces of nature. That is all gone now. One by one those pressure ridges broke, ruptured, split and dove into the deep, bobbing their way across our bay.
Scott Base is fully surrounded by water now, which is something that hasn't happened in over 20 years. It's something that I am honored to have gotten a chance to witness. It's one of the things I love about being down here -- no season is the same and rarely can weather have such a profound and visible effect on the scenery, on the conditions.
This open water has not gone unnoticed by the penguins. For a season that has already seen a lot of penguins the word spread fast when a few days ago hundreds of emperor penguins showed up at Scott Base. Many of us have gone over there with smiles plastered on our faces as we watched these meter tall penguins play and swim in the water. We usually see emperors only when they are molting, when they are at their least playful. For the past few days we have watched them leaping from the water, launching themselves up and onto the ice shelf. At a distance of more than 5 ft it's pretty impressive to watch. And pretty spectacular when they miss, hit the wall and then fall back into the sea. They seem to be OK though. And eventually they all make it on.
Two days ago a bunch of guys who had been working on the airfield were traveling back to town. he road leads to an area known as the transition, where the ice (now, not so permanent) meets the volcanic island that McMyuro and SB sit on. It passes by SB, right near where the penguins had been hanging out. When they got there they discovered all of the penguins hanging out on the road. They were forced to stop and someone uttered one of my favorite radio calls of the season when they alerted the firehouse that they would miss their checkin because of penguin traffic on the road. The pictures from this event are remarkable (and no, I don't have any of them).
Today is our last flight and it looks like the road is going to hold up until we no longer need it. There are all sorts of mysteries right now as we begin to wonder how long it will take for the water to ice over. We wonder when the emperors are going to leave (part of me hopes that the ice breakup has washed away their tradtional mating ground and they have to winter with us). We wonder the affect this breakout will have on permament ice condititions. Is is something that will reoccur more freuquently now? Who knows...
It has been fun to speculate though. And I am glad to have been able to experience it just as I will be glad to wave goodbye to the last plane this afternoon and finally officially start winter.
For the first time this season I can say I am really, really, excited for this winter.
Let's get it going.