State of the Planet

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Rough seas bring unexpected rewards

Blocked by sea ice in Prince Gustav Channel. Credit: Bruce Huber
Blocked by sea ice in Prince Gustav Channel. Credit: Bruce Huber

Working in Antarctica is always a challenge but this trip has had more than the usual setbacks. After working feverishly in Punta Arenas to prepare our ship, we had to wait two days for some essential cargo to arrive. Not long after pushing off, we encountered rough weather in the Drake Passage, a region notorious for unkind seas. The ship pitched and heaved, but the storm was brief, and we sailed out of the weather after one day.

Our planned route to the Larsen B embayment took us around the tip of the peninsula to the eastern side and south through Prince Gustav Channel, where we were stopped by an impressive field of sea ice. The sea ice around Antarctica typically retreats in austral summer—December through February—and grows again in early April. We had hoped the sea ice would retreat enough to allow us easy passage to Larsen B. This year, though, the ice in the Weddell Sea had not retreated very much, forcing us to come up with a back-up plan.

We had planned to fly over several glaciers in a helicopter, to install instruments that would automatically record ice movement and weather. Some of the sites happened to be accessible from the western side of the peninsula, where there is no sea, so we decided to sail there and wait for the ice to melt on the eastern side. We arrived on Jan. 14, but bad weather has prevented us from taking the helicopter up.

While waiting for better conditions, we are taking measurements in several fjords along the western coast. We are now in the Gerlache Strait, a popular site for cruise ships because of its spectacular scenery and whale watching. So far we’ve seen humpback and minke whales feeding in the calm iceberg-studded waters.

Stopped by sea ice, we sailed from the west coast of the peninsula to the east coast. The red dot marks our location as of Jan. 22.
Stopped by sea ice, we sailed from the east coast of the peninsula to the west. The red dot marks our location as of Jan. 22.

The setbacks have given us an unexpected opportunity to learn more about this fascinating part of the Antarctic Peninsula ecosystem. We will soon head back to the Larsen side to test the sea ice again, with our instruments ready to go.

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