Rediscovering Ross Island 2012: Awe-Inspiring Ice Caves

Written by Erin Phillips Writer

After a hearty Sunday brunch at McMurdo station, Ken, Paul, Dan, and I went out for an afternoon on the snowmobiles.  This outing would allow those of us with no prior snowmobile experience to become more comfortable with the machines, as we will be using them for sampling rocks in difficult terrain during the coming weeks.  We gathered our gear, bundled up, stowed hand warmers in our mittens and headed out across the sea ice (Plate 1).  It was a brisk ride; the minimum wind chill for the day was -22°F and the wind speed was over 30 knots for most of the day.  We all managed to stay warm on the ride to the Erebus Glacier Tongue, which took about 45 minutes.

Plate 1: Paul and Erin in windy conditions on the snowmobiles crossing the sea ice. Photo by Dan Rasmussen.

The Erebus Glacier Tongue is an elongate seaward extension of a glacier that is surrounded by sea ice at this time of year.  Its zigzag pattern looks like a chain saw blade sticking out onto the ice. When we arrived at its northern margin, Ken hopped off his sled and climbed up to a small hole in the vertical ice.  He broke away some snow and then disappeared into the hole.  A few moments later he poked his head out and told us to turn the snowmobiles off and come on in.  We all scrambled into the cave, a welcome shelter from the howling wind (Plate 2).

Plate 2: Paul, Dan, and Erin enjoy the relatively warm shelter of the ice cave. Photo by Ken Sims.

What we found inside was exquisite.  Intricate hexagonal ice crystals and long elegantly curved icicles surrounded us, and blue light bathed the spacious cave (Plates 3 and 4).  We were all mesmerized by the place.  We stepped and crawled gingerly through the cave to avoid disturbing the ice artwork.  I think we could have admired the scene for the rest of the afternoon, but the snowmobiles were getting cold and we didn’t want to take a chance on having them fail to start, so we reluctantly left the cave, revved our engines and pointed our motorized steeds back towards McMurdo station.

Plate 3: The ice crystals in the cave are like giant snowflakes and take the form of large hexagonal plates about 15 centimeters across. Photo by Paul Wallace.
Plate 4: Curved icicles in the ice cave are formed by the movement of the Erebus Glacier Tongue, which moves at about 40 centimeters/day or 146 meters/year. Photo by Paul Wallace.

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A Professor at the University of Wyoming and a former tenured Research Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Dr. Kenneth W.W. Sims uses isotopic and chemical tracers to study geologic processes in the earth and other planetary bodies. Ken has over fifty peer-reviewed scientific publications focusing on the study of mantle melting, oceanic and continental crustal genesis, volcanology, hydrology, planetary core-formation, climate change and oceanography. Dr. Sims earned his BA in Geology from Colorado College, his MSc from the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico; and his PhD in Geochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. Ken’s field experience ranges from ocean floor geology, using submersibles and remote sensing techniques to geological studies of active volcanoes at high altitudes in technical terrain. Academic awards include: the Estwing Outstanding Senior Award at Colorado College, an Outstanding Student Instructor Award from the UC, Berkeley, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Postdoctoral Scholar Fellowship, three Mellon Awards for innovative exploratory research and the Kincaid School 2012 Papadopoulos Fellowship. In addition to his academic career, Ken is an avid climber and has been an alpine guide for over three decades with extensive experience in technical, high altitude and cold weather mountaineering in Antarctica, the Alaska Range, and the Andes of Peru. These technical climbing skills have enabled him to collect young lavas and gather volcanic gas data inside active, remote volcanoes across the globe, including Erebus Volcano in Antarctica; Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua; and Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo Volcanoes in DR Congo. Using isotopic and geochemical data measured in these hard-to-get-samples Professor Sims’ ultimate goal is to better understand the genesis and evolution of Earth’s volcanoes, with an eye toward predicting future eruptions. Sims’ research and scientific expeditions have been featured in National Geographic Magazine; Oceanus; Popular Mechanics; New Scientist; several children’s books and magazines; NHK Japanese Public Television (Miracle Continent Antarctica- Mt Erebus), National Geographic Television (Man versus Volcano); and, the Discovery Channel (Against the Elements). Professor Sims is a featured scientist on National Geographic Explorer Site http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/bios/kenneth-sims/ For Professor Sims’ complete Curriculum Vitae, Publication List and Mountaineering Resume see http://geology.uwyo.edu/kenwwsims.