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The Simple Life

Updated Thursday, 22nd March 2007

Mark Brandon explores the Belgica Trough and sends back a stunning picture of grease ice.

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I know in my last entry I said our ship was complex. Whilst that’s true, our life at sea is actually pretty simple with our worries only in a few directions. For example I don’t have to worry about whether there is enough milk for breakfast (there always is), that my train season ticket needs renewing (who cares!) or that I need to post a letter (post?!). You know I even forgot my bank pin number (I expect in a few weeks that could be an issue…..).

What’s important now is just the basics, and so I am pleased to report that we have temporarily left the ice and reached open water. The engineers have finally been able to make some fresh water. It was touch and go for a while with our water down to much less than a tenth of what we usually carry, but now our tanks are being filled. OK, so we don’t have enough water to start washing clothes yet, but I got my long shower. Actually the shower was so good that I don’t mind at all that we have just all but run out of fresh vegetables and fruit. (I probably wouldn’t be so laid back if we had run out of chocolate).

At the moment we are working well out in the Southern Ocean. If you click on the link you could be wondering what we are doing out here? 200 miles from the coast, out in the open sea, and over a boring flat dull piece of seafloor. Whilst Google map is pretty good – not surprisingly the sea floor is rubbish! Right beneath us is the Belgica Trough, a seventy mile wide gouge in the sea floor leading all the way from deep water to the ice on the edge of the Antarctic continent. During the last ice age the sea level was much lower and the trough was formed by a vast glacier that flowed away from Antarctica carving a deep valley. Now we live in a warmer world where most of the ice has retreated, sea level has risen, and so the valley is now a flooded trough in the sea floor.

I said previously we are interested in how the ice shelves are melting from warm water beneath them, and the trough is possibly a motorway for the warm water to get all the way to the ice. To test this we are heading south along the trough making measurements of the ocean as we go. If we measure warm water all the way - we may have struck scientific gold.

I also talked about names in Antarctica and the Belgica Trough is named for the ship Belgica which has its own special place in polar history. Most British people have heard of Shackleton and how his ship Endurance was crushed in the Weddell Sea in 1916. Well the Belgica almost suffered a similar fate almost 20 years before Shackleton. The commander Adrien de Gerlache took his ship into some outrageous locations given that they didn’t have engines as powerful as we do, and so almost inevitably they got stuck in the ice. They only managed to escape after a long and difficult winter – during which one of the officers on board Belgica - a young Norwegian on his first expedition was hooked by the polar bug – he was Roald Amundsen!

As we head further south I will lose the satellite link again, but I couldn't leave without an amazing picture. At the ice edge we sailed through a region where the ocean was just starting to freeze. When you first get ice crystals forming (we call this frazil ice), they float up to the surface and form what we call grease ice. Maybe you can see why.

grease ice Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Mark Brandon Grease ice [Image: Mark Brandon]

 

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