After nearly 30 years in Alaska, after decades kayaking coastlines replete with tidewater glaciers and hiking mountains up to vast icefields, I thought I knew ice. But that’s the wonderment of the natural world: it continues to surprise me. So when I traveled to the Antarctic Peninsula in February, I saw ice as I never had before.
Endless forms most beautiful, wrote Charles Darwin, and so it is, perhaps nowhere more evident than with ice. Yes, he was writing about biological evolution. But there is, in these giant ancient-ice bergs, an evolution as well. And an unsurpassed artistry.
Once they break from the icesheet or glacier of the continent, they live for years, decades. These bergs are so big they are named and tracked, watched by satellite. B9 sheered from the eastern Ross Ice Shelf in 1987; in 1989, it broke into three pieces; in 2010, the largest piece, B9B, collided with the Mertz Glacier, causing it to calve a massive berg.
And they travel. By current and wind they travel hundreds of miles, circling the continent, moving northward. B9 covered 1200 miles in 22 months. One berg blocked our route through the Lemaire Channel one day, but by the next had shifted, allowing passage.
Not until this trip had I truly seen an iceberg. Growlers and bergy bits, yes, and floes. But not bergs. They are a different animal entirely. Freed from the icecap or glacier, they wander the coasts and ocean for decades, their faces changing, their bodies eroding and falling apart, until nothing is left but shards like bones.
They are not just white, but a changing tapestry of all colors, swirling in dark seas. Their ice is blue and pink and yellow, purple in dark light, and sometimes struck gold, shining like diamonds. Like the white of a color wheel, it contains all other colors, and reveals one or another or several at any given moment, in any given light and shadow, any alteration in perspective. A changing, moving work of art.
Watching the beauty before me, the constantly changing kaleidoscope of color and texture, never far from my mind was climate change. The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming places in the world. Ice shelves are collapsing, glaciers and ice caps are retreating and thinning. There’s news this month of the catastrophic collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which holds 10 percent of the continent’s ice.
The beauty and the terror of life on Earth right now. Species like Adelie penguins who nest on ice having to move farther south, away from us. The grief of what we are destroying, the joy of what remains. The beauty and the terror: not of getting trapped in the ice, but of losing the ice, the great melt underway.
There is an absence here, an absence of human presense, like a fresh breeze through an open window in a room that has been closed for centuries. It is a place to rest worry and fear, to see by the light of a new path, a new way of living on this planet. There is a lack of thinking that there is anything here for us to do, other than witness.
I still dream of moving through the ice gallery, a gallery of sculptures by elemental forces. Nature doesn’t cling to her creations, said one of my companions. It's like a sand mandala, he said, the beauty formed, and then swept away. Beauty, on a different time scale than ours. More slowly, gradually, at least from our perspective. Geologic time. Earth time.