Flight over Southern Ocean
With the brakes retooled, we were finally ready for take off in the C-17. Take off was amazing, despite all the noise generated by the massive engines (we had to wear ear plugs or headphones): I was pushed sideways in my seat by the inertial forces of take off, but I could not distinguish between when the plane's wheels lifted off the ground and when the C-17 became airborne, it was that smooth. Based on the map on board, we were going to fly straight south toward Antarctica from Christchurch, over the Southern Ocean.
The Southern Ocean is the Earth's youngest ocean, forming approximately 34-30 million years ago when, through plate tectonics, Antarctica separated from its Gondwanaland partners, South America and Australia. It is a unique ocean, home to a great variety of marine life, including whales and their favorite food, krill. Krill is an important food source for not only whales, but also fish upon which seals, penguins, sea birds, and other marine creatures depend. Growth of the Antarctic ozone hole may be negatively affecting krill populations, shifting the ecological balance in this region.
The Southern Ocean is also a treacherous ocean; as I peered out the cockpit's window to view the swirling masses of clouds, frothy white caps on top of waves seemingly coming from several directions, and what looked like icebergs. Some of the Earth's fiercest storms take place here, with high winds and large waves. Captain Scott, Sir Ernest Shackleton and many other early Antarctic explorers crossed the Southern Ocean by ship. I was very thankful to be thousands of feet in the air, looking down upon this active ocean.
As we approached the continent of Antarctica, the cloudier the skies became. I hoped we would not "boomerang", which would mean that the C-17 would have to turn around and fly back another five hours to Christchurch. It had happened on several previous flights already, and I hoped that this time, we would be lucky.
Southern Ocean Diversity
Climate and Ecosystem Dynamics of the Southern Ocean
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Postcards from the Field: Polar Fossil Mysteries