The tabular bergs of the Amundsen Sea remained our escort as we made way towards Pine Island Bay this morning. Summer is nearing an end in Antarctica, evident by the temperatures of -11°C and the 35 kts of wind that made it feel even colder. Once we arrived at Bear Peninsula and found some protection from the wind, we could see slicks of grease ice forming on the surface of the ocean. On the windwards side of the large tabular icebergs, some of this ice was already thicker and had become pancake ice, sea ice that forms in more turbulent conditions. On the calmer, leeward side of these massive bergs, this same grease ice was thickening into nilas ice, large sheets that appear to have interlocking fingers. This is the beginning of sea ice formation. Every year, Antarctica doubles in size due to the winter ice formation. Soon, these cold temperatures will drop more, and the entire area will become a frozen white landscape. However, something very different is happening under the water in this region of Antarctica. Bear Peninsula is at the entrance to Pine Island Bay. Pine Island Bay is home to the Thwaites and Pine Island Glaciers. These two glaciers, dubbed the Doomsday Glaciers by the media, are two of the top five largest glaciers in Antarctica. They are heavily influenced by the warmer waters that bathe their underbellies. As air temperature rises in certain parts of the Antarctic, this brings greater temperature gradients, which leads to stronger winds coming off the continent. This leads to surface waters getting pushed offshore more readily, which induces upwelling of deeper, slightly warmer waters that make their way onto the continental shelf and closer to glaciers like Thwaites and Pine Island. The amount of ice they are discharging due to this influx of warmer water is alarming, and it is a topic of much conversation in the media these days.
Very few people come to this part of Antarctica. It’s very humbling, and it certainly gives one pause to be so close to climate change, ground zero. As we all bundled up and cruised around the tabular bergs looking at the seals that call this area home, I can’t help but wonder if the surrounding icebergs came from Thwaites or Pine Island. I couldn’t help but want to apologize to a Weddell seal sleeping peacefully. I wanted to apologize that the human race didn’t act sooner.