Breaking through Antarctic Sea Ice

Image: A fracture line in thin sea ice created by Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker in the Weddell Sea. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 32 mm, f/16, 1/400 sec, ISO 320, hand-held.

After passing through the Antarctic Sound, the Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker entered the notorious Weddell Sea.  I had just read all about this area of Antarctica prior to this expedition after a good friend gave me the book, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing.  I was a bit wary of going through thick sea ice after reading this amazing story, but I was assured by the power of this icebreaker after I saw how it could move through ice.  In the video below, I am standing at the front of the bow as the ship approaches the sheet of drift ice and then eventually slows down as it crushes the ice and makes an opening.

I also spent time with my camera at the bow capturing images of the splitting ice as the ship made its way through solid sheets of ice.  It is hard to tell the scale of the ice from these images, but the ice was 1-2 m (3.2-6.5 ft) thick above the surface of the water. 

Image: Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker creating a path in ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 24 mm, f/16, 1/400 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

I went up to the bridge above deck 8 at one point in the early morning to get an overview of what was happening below on the ice.  It was a nice perspective to see how fracture lines were created when the sea ice was broken up by the weight of the ship.  

Image: Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker creating fracture line in sea ice in Weddell Sea. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 32 mm, f/16, 1/400 sec, ISO 320, hand-held.

I also took some images of the stern to get an idea of what our path looked like as we paved our way through the sea ice.

Image: The path of Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker in sea ice in Weddell Sea. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 24 mm, f/16, 1/320 sec, ISO 320, hand-held.

As we progressed into Weddell Sea and got closer to Snow Hill Island, the ice became thicker and the world of white grew around us.  The light on the surrounding landscapes was blinding but created a winter wonderland. 

Image: Icebergs protruding from sea ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 200 mm, f/8, 1/1600 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

I continually walked around the ship to capture various scenes.  In the image below, you can see that the sea ice had thickened and the pathway we took was more defined behind us since we were navigating through larger and thicker sheets of ice.  In the distance, there were some gigantic tabular icebergs that dwarfed our ship.

Image: The path in sea ice created by the Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker in Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 24 mm, f/16, 1/500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

In many of the images, there were brown spots that showed up in the ice that had been agitated.  I learned that the brown was a type of algae that grew on the undersurface of the sea ice and provided a source of food for a variety of sea life.   

Image: Blue iceberg protruding from sea ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 31 mm, f/16, 1/250 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

When we were about 20 miles away from Snow Hill Island, we came across an area with very thick sea ice and the scene shown in the video below.  Initially the ship moved forward in the ice as I videotaped the stern, but at about halfway through the video, the forward progress of the ship stopped and small pieces of ice sheet started breaking up behind the ship.

I learned that this ship could navigate at 20 knots at full speed in open water with 6 engines, but in soft first-year ice up to 1.5 m thick, it slowed down to 1 knot.  When the ice got thicker (up to 3 m thick), the ship’s strategy had to change to repeated ramming.  Since we were not making forward progress at this point, we got to experience the ship repeatedly ramming the ice for a couple hours.

Image: Sea ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 35 mm, f/16, 1/200 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

Slowly, the ship began to break away the surrounding ice.  Since the ship had a flat bottom, it went on top of the sea ice and the weight of the ship eventually crushed the ice and we lowered back down into the water.  We backed up and repeated the process until a fracture line developed.

Image: Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker crushing ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 24 mm, f/16, 1/250 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

The scene behind the ship became even more beautiful as the light changed and we could see more of the blue water that was churning.

Image: Blue sea waters stirred up behind the Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 24 mm, f/16, 1/200 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

We eventually broke through this thick ice sheet and progressed closer to Snow Hill Island.  The captain skillfully managed to navigate us to an area in the middle of thick sea ice that was 6 miles from the southern side of Snow Hill Island and the Emperor penguin colony!!!  We had hope that we would soon see the penguins..  

You can view these images individually and more not posted here in my portfolio located here.  For those interested in more of the icebreaking process, I included one more 5 minute video of the icebreaker creating fracture lines and moving through ice into open water.  

If you are interested in one of my 2019 calendars that contains an image of sea ice in addition to penguins, puffins and more, please contact me at amy_novotny@yahoo.com by November 20, 2018.  See my past post here for more details and examples of images I am using in the calendar.

Author: Amy Novotny

Amy Novotny is a physical therapist, marathon/ultra runner and nature photographer. She treats patients for a variety of conditions but specializes in chronic pain and calming an overactive nervous system using special diaphragmatic breathing. She has used this technique to help her qualify and run in four Boston marathons! She enjoys the outdoors and can often be found running and hiking on trails in throughout Arizona. She attempts to capture the beauty of nature with her photography both locally in Arizona and also throughout the United States. She is becoming more interested in wildlife photography and attempting to capture the emotion of animal interactions. In her spare time, Amy volunteers as a photo guide for the Arizona Highways PhotoScapes nonprofit and shares her joy of nature with others. Please feel free to contact her regarding her photography, physical therapy or running.

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