The past week has been full of quintessential Antarctic experiences. I want to highlight these in the blog today because I actually spend a lot of time in the lab rather than outside on deck, so these experiences have been very special.
1. Penguins: we got up close to a pair of Emperor penguins the other day as a large piece of sea ice floated by. They stood by watching the boat, craning their necks every so often like they were trying to get a better look at the giant, orange thing in front of them. My favorite thing about Emperor penguins is how they walk: it’s a slow shuffle as they move an entire side of their body in one motion. By contrast, I always see the little Adelie penguins run in spurts. They usually hold their wings out behind them and run so far forward it looks like they are going to trip over their little feet.
2. Blizzards: Antarctic storms are world-renowned as ferocious white-outs with howling winds and temperatures many tens of degrees below 0°C. We have hit a few storms throughout our cruise, but a couple days ago, we stepped out on deck to flying snow that stung our faces and temperatures so cold we could only stand to be outside for a few minutes. Some sea ice was piled higher than the back deck and I couldn’t see more than about 50 yards in any direction. This particular storm was located north of the ship, but it had pushed much of the sea ice south toward us. We are still trying to break through into open water. It’s slow going, but the captain and mates are working hard to get us through and ship speed should pick up soon.
3. The southern sky: there were a few amazing sights that I got to see in the high-latitude southern sky. The first was the Milky Way. The Milky Way can usually be seen on any clear night away from light pollution, but seeing it above the ship’s bow on a cold, clear night made it especially beautiful for me. The second sight was the Southern Cross. This constellation can be seen on the horizon in the northern hemisphere, but it is located overhead at this latitude. The Southern Cross is prominently displayed on at least two national flags (Australia and New Zealand) and at least one regional flag (the Magellan Straits region of Patagonia), so it bears the same significance as the North Star and Ursa Major/Big Dipper in the northern hemisphere.
The last and exceptionally special sight was the aurora australis – the Southern Lights. From our position at sea, the aurora looked like a gray curtain off in the distance. There were the distinctive drapes and folds, but I saw none of the brilliant greens and pinks … until someone set a long exposure on their camera and captured extraordinary images of a bright green aurora (which I shamelessly pirated for the blog). When I was growing up, I had planned to see the Northern Lights one day, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would see their southern counterpart.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the work we do in the lab and forget what a magnificent, dangerous, ever-changing place we have come to explore. Even though science provides reasons for, and metrics of the natural wonders we see here in Antarctica, I like knowing that the researchers who devote their career to providing those reasons and metrics are still captivated by the simple beauty of the continent.