Into the Belly of an Ice-Breathing Dragon

By Guy Williams

As I write, we are at ground zero of a hurricane-strength (65+ knots)
katabatic wind event in the Terra Nova Bay polynya [164 21ºE, -75 S].
It is quite incredible to experience such an epic demonstration of
polar ocean-atmospheric interaction. We are so small in comparison to
the forces around us, it feels like we are in one of those cheap dodgy
kayaks from Shiploads that has somehow made its way to the bottom of
Niagara Falls.


NB Palmer from DJI quadcopter.

NB Palmer from DJI quadcopter.

After a couple of weeks of work in the advancing sea ice pack to the
north, we have found ourselves once again strapping everything down as
the winds and waves buffet our progress forwards. This particular
event has now been running for over 24 hours and the ocean is
responding with long streaks of frazil that are over varying width and
over ten metres deep, spawning gazillions of little baby ice pancakes
(pikelets?). It is hard to fathom when it is so cold, but some
back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest over a 1000-1500 watts/m2 of
energy is pouring out of the ocean like some sort of apocalyptic
rapture as the cold, dry atmosphere rips out its tribute.

We had fair warning. On approach to TNB polynya, across the
continental shelf to the north-east, we encountered clues of what lay
ahead. Dragon-scale ice (aka Dragon-skin ice – but let’s face it, that
doesn’t sound as impressive).  Very rare, bizarre, evidence of a
darker chaos in the cryospheric realm. Not seen in East Antarctica
since 2007.  Kilometre after kilometre of larger pancakes all piled
up against each other like a gratin dauphinois gone wrong.
Horribly wrong.


Dragon-scale ice

Dragon-scale ice


Dragon-scale ice

Dragon-scale ice

We will spend the next two weeks in the belly of this ice-breathing
dragon, taking advantage of quiet periods when the katabatics drop off
to observe the increase in salinity of the shelf waters below, a
thirsty recipient of the brine-rejected during sea-ice formation that
rains down to depths below 1000m in the Drygalski trough. Cold and
saline…dense…growing in negative buoyancy relative to the offshore
Southern Ocean, biding its time before its escapes north past Cape
Adare and down into the abyss, injecting new life, and little bit of
dragon’s breath, into the Earth’s global overturning circulation.

Antarctic sunset

Antarctic sunset


Guy (inspired by Peter Sedwick)

15 comments for “Into the Belly of an Ice-Breathing Dragon

  1. M Wagman
    May 3, 2017 at 14:35

    Hi there,

    I just wanted to thank you and the other contributors to this site for sharing your voyage. A friend of mine is on board the NBP with you, but between the wind and the (far below) freezing temps, the long work days, the sparse satellite coverage and the time difference, it’s a little hard to communicate.

    Your blogs and photos are providing wonderful insight into life on both the ship and the ice. Your writing is warm, humorous and patient, providing even land-locked laymen like myself with terrific information and generating excitement about your research.

    Please share my appreciation with your fellow bloggers. I look forward to the next installment of your adventures.

    Stay safe and warm,

    M Wagman

    • Frost Bitten Kitten
      May 10, 2017 at 21:12


  2. Meredith O'Hara
    May 9, 2017 at 11:13

    Breath-taking pictures! Thank you! More More More :)

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