Wildlife

A Gift of an Antarctic Sunset and the Start of a Long, Dark Winter

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.

Light shining off the Nathaniel B Palmer during our first sunset of the season in the Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Light shining off the Nathaniel B. Palmer during our first sunset of the season in the Ross Sea, Antarctica (photo by Cassandra Brooks).

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.

The bow of the Nathaniel B. Palmer moving through the pack ice in the Ross Sea, Antarctica.
The bow of the Nathaniel B. Palmer moving through the pack ice in the Ross Sea, Antarctica (photo by Cassandra Brooks).

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.

Ice has covered almost everything on the vessel, including our life rings (left) and the bow (right; photos by Cassandra Brooks).
Ice has covered almost everything on the vessel, including our life rings (left) and the bow (right; photos by Cassandra Brooks).

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.

Average sea ice extent in the Southern Ocean in the winter (left) and summer (right).
Average sea ice extent in the Southern Ocean in the winter (left) and summer (right; graphic by Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal).

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.

Adélie Penguin on the pack ice in the Ross Sea (left; photo by John B. Weller) and crabeater seals on an iceberg off the Antarctic Peninsula (right; Photo by Cassandra Brooks).
Adélie Penguin on the pack ice in the Ross Sea (left; photo by John B. Weller) and crabeater seals on an iceberg off the Antarctic Peninsula (right; Photo by Cassandra Brooks).

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.

Weddell seal underwater in the Ross Sea (left) and an Emperor Penguin chick and mom (right; Photos by John B. Weller).
Weddell seal underwater in the Ross Sea (left) and an Emperor Penguin chick and mom (right; Photos by John B. Weller).

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.

 

Cassandra Brooks is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder studying international ocean policy, particularly focusing on marine protection in the Antarctic.
  • Gil Edgar

    Great article, but there was no need to say, “…driving the temperature down to -40°F.” -40 is the same on the F and C scale; the only place on the two scales where the numbers are the same. 🙂

    Your pal,
    Gil Edgar

  • mary ann richardson

    Stunning sights

  • Den Brackley

    I’ve been watching Discovery Channel for years and I’d ,well I don’t know what I’d give to see what you people see. Like this last sunset for months and then darkness for months. I mean it’s the whole Artic life . AMAZING!!!!!!!

  • Den Brackley

    I’ve been watching Discovery Chl. for years. The artic amazes me and the beauty of it is AMAZING! The absolute climate just enhances the aura of it all. I’d give anything to experiance the life there for a year , a month or a week Jeez just to be able to see that sunset even though its gonna stay night for a long time , Ii’s beautiful.

  • Den Brackley

    I can’t say enough about the Artic. It’s just AMAZING !!!

  • mirugi

    Guys, you are a blessed people.Enjoy a every moment of that.Hope those wonders brings you closer to your creator.Enjoy the longest night in the world.

  • Erin Loury

    I love reading your updates, Cassandra! You are such a wonderful storyteller. So excited that you are living the dream and getting to share it with us from a fascinating place!

  • Jim Tee

    Thanks for sharing the photos. We were there in Feb. 2013 and its breath taking. Spent the year of 1960 above the Arctic Circle at Cape Lisburne Alaska. Life changer.

  • Dane Walker

    Thanks for the reminder of how sunsets look after months without one. I remember the XO making a 1MC announcement on the USCGC Burton Island (wind class Ice breaker) in 1971, Operation DF71, we would see a sunset that would last 7 minutes. I see the still look just as good but better when you are there.

  • drtariq siddiqui

    its amazing for me.your work is best ,i wish i spend one night world longest night,its freeze me,i hope one day i will be stay a full long night there.,
    dtrariq siddiqui

  • AQSA

    AMAZING artical… i wish k main Antarctica zroor jaon life men.
    And i hope k mujy koi esi job mily jis mein mujy Antarctica jana prry 🙂 🙂

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