Last week the sun finally dipped below the icy horizon, announcing the summer’s grand finale. Brilliant orange light streamed through the portholes on the starboard side of the ship. I peeled myself away from my microscope, dashed across the room and peered outside to catch the sun blazing down on the horizon.The first Antarctic sunset of the season – from the starboard side of the Nathaniel B. Palmer (photo by Cassandra Brooks).
I raced upstairs, donned my thick red coat and ran for the steel doors leading to the first floor deck. I opened the door, then quickly and carefully stepped out onto the icy deck. The sight took my breath away – the sky was on fire, turning the ocean a deep purple-red. Gusts of wind collided with the wide rolling swells, driving an arc of brilliant pink spray 10 feet into the air. Our vessel glowed soft and bright reflecting back orange light.
I made my way to the railing, choking back tears of bliss. I opened myself to the raw, pure beauty of this place and fell in love with Antarctica anew.
People often ask me why I would want to work in Antarctica – the windiest, driest, coldest continent on Earth. If I could bottle up that sunset and share it with the world, then there would be no question. These moments – humbled by the extreme elements and exhilarated by the sheer beauty of the place – here at the bottom of the world, are like touching infinity.
Since that 1:00 am sunset, we have lost about 15 minutes of daylight every day. The season is changing hard and fast. Even the twilight nights are turning to darkness – I caught the moon three nights ago and will soon catch the stars. If I am lucky, once we are further north, I will see the aurora australis – the southern lights.
As the darkness encroaches, the temperatures drop. Some days are still almost balmy with no wind and temperatures hovering just around freezing. Other days, the wind blows 60 knots (~70mph), driving the temperature down to -40°F. On these days, we are not allowed outside on deck – its too dangerous. As the weather shifts, a layer of ice coats the vessel, melting and refreezing into milky icicles.
With the increasing cold, the surface of the ocean begins to freeze, dropping its salt to form sea ice. As the Antarctic winter descends, the ice continues to grow, effectively doubling the size of the Antarctic continent. As the ice extends, so does the darkness. In the southernmost areas of the continent, the Antarctic night can last for six months.
Many birds and mammals, like humpback whales and Antarctic Petrels, flee the dark and icy winter, heading north to feed in warmer waters. Others, like Adélie Penguins and crabeater seals, move to the northern stretches of drifting sea ice (referred to as pack ice) where the temperatures may be less extreme and there will be still be some faint daylight to feed by.
The hardiest of the Antarctic bunch stay. Emperor Penguins gather on the fast ice (the sea ice that is frozen solid to the Antarctic continent) to breed, enduring temperatures as low as -100°F and winds racing at more than 100 mph. Weddell seals, the southernmost mammals in the world, also stay in the fast ice, hunting by moonlight and raking holes in the ice with their teeth so that they can return to the surface and breath.
As the summer turns to fall, the Ross Sea offers a new scene every day: the myriad of sea ice formations and bergs, the drastic weather changes from sunny skies to howling wind and snow, and the abundance of seals, penguins and whales. All the while we are searching for scientific answers that will help us better understand not only the Ross Sea ecosystem, but also how processes in the Ross Sea impact our global oceans. I look forward to continuing to share these stories with you.