Out in the field

Farewell to the Antarctic

There has been some rough weather in our last few days – it comes as a surprise when the horizontal surface you’re standing on suddenly has the gradient of one in three! But this is pretty good for the Furious Fifties. It can get much, much worse.

We have discovered our cabin window leaks as the spray washes over the ship. The drip tray beneath the window builds up a few inches of water, then, with just the right amount of roll building up a suitable wave, a cascade sloshes onto the bed. Not mine; it was the Alaskan who had the cold shower at 2am…

Macquarie Island

Macquarie Island

Macquarie Island

After a week at sea, it was good to get a foot onto land. We visited Macquarie Island at the weekend, about 1500 km south of Tasmania. It’s an interesting place, a shard of crust 32 km long and 5 km wide sitting right on the plate boundary. We landed first near the northern end, and met up with staff at the ANARE station here. It’s an impressive set-up, especially so as they have on staff a brewmaster and assistant brewmaster who brew a range of beers in quantities which would match any microbrewery. Despite dropping only slightly veiled hints, I didn’t get to taste any.

They’re currently researching the albatrosses and the elephant seals here and are getting towards the end of a major rabbit eradication programme after which the hope is that the natural vegetation can flourish. I think I was alone in my view that if you let the rabbits strip the island of vegetation that would encourage erosion and we’d get to see more of the rocks.

Sheeted dykes Macquarie Island

Sheeted dykes Macquarie Island

There were some great rocks exposed along the coast. Wireless Hill, the headland at the northern end of the island, is attached by a narrow isthmus upon which the station is situated. On the eastern side of the isthmus, at the landing beach, are some good exposures of sheeted dykes, and the boulders on the beach are mainly derived from these, some showing plagioclase phenocrysts typical of the central parts of the dykes. Amongst the dolerites are some boulders of gabbro. The small sea stacks on western side of the isthmus are mainly of pillow lavas, and elswhere in this northern third or so of the island peridotites and gabbros crop out. The ophiolite here is probably from the late Oligocene spreading ridge of the Antarctic-Australian plate boundary. It’s one of few, or perhaps the only, island (non-continental margin) ophiolites with thousands of kilometres of open ocean on all sides. The western beach of the isthmus also had rounded pebbles of pumice, derived from some distant eruption.

Pillow lavas, Macquarie Island

Pillow lavas, Macquarie Island

From the Isthmus we headed south to Sandy Bay where the rocks were less well-exposed, but there were plenty of King and Royal penguins as well as the lumbering blubber slugs that are elephant seals to keep people happy. By the late afternoon, the weather had closed in and with the drizzly rain more continuous and a cold wind, it was good to get back on board for a beer.

Days at sea are long and tiring, especially if the ship has a significant roll, but on the return journey they do allow time for reflection on what we’ve seen and experienced. We’re on our way back from one of the most remarkable landscapes in the world; there is nowhere else on the planet like Antarctica. The sheer scale of the place and its vast emptiness is overwhelming. It certainly changed my perspectives when I first visited the continent four years ago. It’s also unique in the way it is governed – by international treaty, a model which some argue should be applied to the Arctic.

It’s not just the scenery and landscape that are impressive about Antarctica. The history of its exploration is compelling: stories of hardship and survival that beggar belief, and of heroic tragedy. Seeing the huts of these early expeditions and experiencing in a slight way what the weather can be like here, even at the height of summer, brings a new dimension to, and a deeper appreciation of the achievements of the Scott and Shackleton expeditions. Geologists like Hartley Ferrar, Douglas Mawson, Edgeworth David, Frank Debenham, Griffith Taylor and Raymond Priestley, along with biologists, physicists, and meteorologists, faced some of the harshest conditions on earth while laying the foundations of Antarctic science. A hundred years on, in this centenary period, it’s been a privilege to visit where these men lived and worked.

2 thoughts on “Farewell to the Antarctic

  1. Pingback: The Ross Sea Ice Shelf and beyond | Geological Society of London blog

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