We have had a difficult day today.
The off load is complete: Hurrah! And the reload of the vessel with all of our scrap metals, trash and unusable equipment was underway until the winds kicked into high gear and shut the whole operation down. The winds were causing white capped waves to break against the shore and pushing the vessel itself against the pier so much that the Bailey Bridge which connects the pier to the shore was pushed inland several feet. It was also shifting farther onto the pier as the ice was being pushed under it’s span . In fact, the width of the water channel separating the solid ground of the bay and the iceberg which is our pier is now considerably reduced. As in the photo below left is the fuel tanker we received late January. Below right is the pier under duress of the weather…the supply vessel is just to the right off camera.
But what’s that you say? An iceberg for a pier? Yes. That’s what I said. I have known about this since I started line handling, but I thought it was best not to say that until handling lines was all done. I didn’t want any of you at home to worry about it. My easily frightened Mom made me promise to stay out of the water while I was here, and I’m doing my best to keep that promise. I was walking on the water, so to speak. I’m pretty certain that my very Catholic mother doesn’t want me to say that either. And yet, the fires of Hell are starting to sound pretty good now that the winter is coming back to Antarctica. But I digress…
The pier itself is nothing more that a shelf of glacier ice that forms in the bay every winter and is leveled, flattened and cabled to the shore line so that it doesn’t float away. It is allowed to float separate of the rock formation of the shoreline so that if a ship bumps it, it will give a little and not sink the boat. It is then covered with nearly a foot of fines. “Fines” is volcanic gravel the consistency of beach sand, which is then spread all over the surface of the glacial floater so that the true surface of the ice is kept at – or very nearly – below the waterline, preventing the sunshine from melting it. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it. But it works in these colder latitudes where the water temperature itself is so near freezing. Also, the fines then insulate the ice, strange as that may seem. I thought the very dark sand would draw the sunlight to it and melt it quicker, but the reality is that only the top 3 or 4 inches if the fines get heated, and the lower 8 or 9 inches maintain their temperature and cool at the surface of the ice creating a nice thermal barrier. Who’d a thunk?
There is one more advantage to the ice pier, it keeps the boats from getting so deep into the harbor that they run aground. And when all of the shipping is done for the season you can pretty much ignore it and it refreezes back into the core of the next glacial gathering of ice over the coming winter, potentially making it even stronger for next year. It has worked this way over many Antarctic summer seasons. Until this one.
By all accounts that I have heard, from other line handlers who have spent several years here, (two with 12, one with 15 and one with 23 years experience) the ice near McMurdo bay has never opened up so much as it has this season. The multitude of wildlife that I have witnessed is exponentially higher than in years passed. That is a clear indication that the area is more accessible. Also the average temperature at the base has been higher this summer than anyone can remember. While it made for a wonderful working vacation for me personally, it has scared the bejeepers out of those on our workforce who have done this for a decade or more. I am not the first person to use the term Global Warming during these discussions.
Worse yet: This evening’s storm blew in at just the right angle to push waves directly between the two rock formations that create the natural, deep water harbor which is McM Bay. The Freighter was being buffeted so badly that they had to stop all crane activity. Although we had already unloaded everything we were expecting, we did not have the chance to reload the vessel with all of the return items, the broken tractor, and several refrigerated mill vans full of Ice Core samples. (Science will be taking a punch in the arm if we don’t find a way to get these back to the States safely.)
We were seriously worried that if the winds grew any stronger they might crush the pier entirely. We had already lost one of the bollards on the seaward side of the ice pier prior to offload, and another was dangerously close to coming loose as of start of day shift Tuesday. We have been fortunate that it has stayed in place till now. So it came as only a small shock when it collapsed into the water at around 9pm tonight. The call out for an emergency line handlers muster went out 5 minutes later, and as I was already working at the VMF, very close to the pier, I went down to help.
I was one of the first 5 people to arrive. Our gathering point was on the shore itself at the top of the embankment looking down on the bay with the pier to the far right, and the vessel to the center. Very near where the above photos were taken. I assisted in removing two of the lines that the ship’s Captain requested we drop, so that if the worst case scenario did develop he could simply cut the two remaining lines and gun the engines back out to sea.
So what happened next? I gotta have something to write about tomorrow…see you then.