We are now back on board the ship after a successful four days and nights on Green Island. Such was our singular focus on getting to Green, after last year’s failed attempt due to dense sea ice, it is a big relief to have cores and samples in the ship’s freezer, themselves now on an even longer journey home than us, via Rothera research station and the RRS Ernest Shackleton to arrive back in the UK in about June.
It was only down to the skill and persistence of Ash and the Protector crew that we found ourselves on Green in the first place. The landing took place in an icy sea surrounded by vast bergs being shifted about by 25 knot winds. Added to this,GreenIsland is also in an area of previously uncharted waters! The coast of the island is pretty rocky, with no flat beaches and only steep snow cliffs on the sheltered southern coast. So in the end we had to nudge up to the slightest of flatter sections of rock and get the kit off the boat as quickly as possible while holding in position against a cross current. And there was a lot of kit! As well as our coring and sampling gear and all the obvious stuff like tents, food, clothing and water, we were also carrying enough spares to last us an extra month in case the conditions worsened and a pick up was not possible (around 500 kg in total).
So at 6 pm last Saturday we found ourselves alone on the island with HMS Protector slowly disappearing into the mist as it chugged back northwards. This was where Ash was in his element, getting things done efficiently and in the right order so that by half past eight, we had a fully functioning camp on a pristine patch of level snow and were enjoying our first meal in the slowly warming tent. We could see the moss banks up on the slopes above us, but saved exploration of those for the next day.
For the next two days we toiled away in torrid conditions. Whilst not all that cold temperature wise (about 5°C on average during the day), it rained (yes, typically whilst our families back home were being snowed in, we had good old drizzle; 35 mm in 2 days!) almost continually and the wind caused hands and feet to get quickly chilled. Not to be deterred though, we took a range of surface moss samples that will help us to understand more about the current growth conditions and build this into our interpretation of the core data. We also took two cores, one of a fraction under a metre and another of about 70 cm. We’ll try to get these dated as soon as we can, but a rough guess is that they will be around 1000 years old at the base, providing us with a continual record of change between now and then, once we get around to analysing samples in the lab! Combined with the other sites that were cored during last year’s field season, we now have a complete transect of locations stretching the length of the Antarctic Peninsula.
With the majority of the work completed in the first two days, the weather did us a favour and improved dramatically for the third day, when we had a fabulous time slowly wandering around the island, exploring and taking far too many photos. Apart from our temporary little settlement, the island is the permanent home to a range of bird life, mainly skuas and blue-eyed cormorants. The cormorants live in a colony on the north coast and were raising fluffy chicks the same size as the adults themselves. Unlike the skuas, they were gentle and calm. They were also extremely elegant in flight. The skuas, on the other hand, ruled the roost. They squawked aggressively and if we got too close, they would swoop down over our heads in a clear show of aggression. It was quite disconcerting! For a while, we thought they were getting used to us and seemed to calm down a bit, but on the final day they seemed even worse, as if they were doing their best to get us off their island!
And so it was that, once we had packed up camp and moved everything back down to the shore, the last few hours were spent sat up on the high rocks peering out to the north between the towering icebergs for Protector to come back into view. In the end the pick-up was remarkably smooth and problem free, but over the course of our time on the island we had been a little concerned that it might not all be so easy. The sea was chock full of hundreds of icebergs that were extremely active, shifting on the winds, tides and currents, grating into each other with deep roars. At times great chunks of ice would spontaneously collapse into the sea as the bergs slowly melted, causing sweeping waves and a period of adjustment whilst the iceberg rebalanced itself. This slow process caused some wonderfully diverse shapes and surface textures to the bergs and I was constantly astonished by the subtle range of colours they exhibited.
We now have two more weeks on the ship until we arrive in Montevideo for our flights back to the UK. The second week will be spent crossing back north across Drake’s Passage and up along the coast of South America, but before then we will continue to wind our way through the stunningly beautiful and scientifically fascinating area that is the Antarctic Peninsula.