Arrival on Ross Island, Antarctica
About an hour before we were scheduled to land, we started descending and the weather was clear. We next spotted the snow-and-ice covered Transantarctic Mountains (TAM), and our spirits lifted: we were going to land in Antartica!
The Transantarctic Mountains are one of the longest mountain belts on Earth, formed by plate tectonic rifting that started in the Jurassic and continues today. These mountains separate the Precambrian rocks of east Antarctica from the Paleozoic and younger rocks of west Antarctica. Only the peaks (called nunataks) are visible, as glacial ice nearly devours the 3000-to-4900 meter elevation of these mountains. These peaks look like someone frosted a chocolate cake with a little too much white icing!
Antarctica possesses 90% of the Earth's freshwater locked up in ice sheets such as the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) and East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS). As I flew over the TAM, I saw large finger-like glaciers wedged in the valleys that connected the EAIS with the Ross Ice Shelf. If the WAIS melted, for example, it would raise sea level at least by 5 m or up to 17 meters; in that case, New York City's Statue of Liberty would need water wings!
Soon, the massive C-17 aircraft touched down like a feather on the frozen ocean of the Ross Ice Shelf. As I emerged from the plane, an immediate piercing coldness ripped at my cheeks, breathing was difficult because of the sharp coldness, and the treeless landscape of Antarctica gave me an immediate sense of isolation. This was like no other place I had ever experienced--was I on another planet?
The strange red boxy Delta vehicles confirmed that I must be on a different planet! To make matters worse, I was startled to see a volcano rising from Ross Island, puffing steam in the direction I was headed! Ross Island was formed by three volcanoes, but fortunately only one, Mt. Erebus (visible in the last little picture on the postcard) is active. A century ago, Shackleton and his expedition climbed this lava lake-filled volcano that once in a while belches out cinders and small amounts of ash. I wasn't sure I wanted to stay on an island with the southernmost active volcano in the world!
Mt. Erebus Volcano Observatory
Warming on the Antarctic Peninsula
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Postcards from the Field: Polar Fossil Mysteries