Icy ocean titans bring cheer


  • Letters
  • Tuesday, 11 Feb 2003

Some icebergs are said to be more than 100km long, with enough space for Penang and Kuala Lumpur put together, writes Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Muka Head Marine Research Station director ASSOC PROF DR ZULFIGAR YASIN in the fourth part of his series on the Malaysian team’s expedition to the white continent 

BEFORE we boarded the Aurora, an Australian scientist quipped: “Would you like the night shift or the day routine?”  

“The day,” I answered without hesitation, preferring not to upset my usual biorhythm.  

“Bad on you, mate,” he said smiling, and it was not until we were well under way before I realised that “night” as we imagined lasted for only two hours during the austral summer in Antarctica. 

Even then, it was more twilight – the sun briefly dipping under the horizon before rising again in a purple haze.  

Sunset, as you can imagine, is a protracted affair, something you do not experience in the tropics. 

“So,” said a colleague, “what of maghrib, isyak and subuh?” – alluding to the schedule of the five obligatory prayers a Muslim performs at sunset, nightfall and dawn.  

With such short durations for these intervals in the southern climate and the indeterminable phases of the night, how are these specific prayers supposed to be performed? 

To this question, I had a wonderful answer from – would you believe it – a scientist back home.  

ICE CAVE:The wind and waves carve the ice to form escarpment,pillars and caves before the monuments disintegrate into the sea.

A reply came through that magic of modern communication, the e-mail: “Those laws are made for normal times, special circumstances call for special practices.”  

How wonderful and flexible is this religion; certainly there is a lesson here for us all. 

On Jan 11 at 8.20am, there was an atmosphere of celebration on the bridge – the first iceberg was spotted. 

It floated past the port bow like a lost sheep for there was no other ice as far as the eye could see. 

This was soon to change. Within the hour, like the parents of that piece of lost ice, we saw two huge icebergs on the horizon. This signalled the ship’s approach to the ice belt surrounding the Antarctic continent. 

On that day, spirits were high. The long sleepless nights were forgotten with the brightening sun and calm sea. 

People walked on deck and at lunch, ice-cream was served for dessert.  

The next few days, we saw more ice in various states of “decay” as they submitted to the elements.  

Occasionally, we saw huge icebergs or “bergs” as they are fondly referred to. 

BLUE ICE:Also known as jade ice,this chunk is made of sea ice which formed on the underside of icebergs.Two penguins hitch a ride on the rare gem.

These titans were more than a kilometre long and 100m high.  

One could literally ski on the slopes of these islands! 

On the sheer cliffs of these icebergs, you could make out clear striations – layers of snow compressed to hard ice.  

Icebergs have their origins in the soft snow that fall in the Antarctic interior.  

As this snow accumulates, it hardens to form glaciers, which flow indeterminably slowly down to the sea. 

Here, near the edge of the cold continent, they break off to wander the Southern Ocean as icebergs.  

Some of these glaciers are thousands of years old and as they traverse the continent on their way to the sea, they scoop up the earth below. 

Geologists of old had long suspected the presence of a lost continent when their scientific trawls of the Southern Ocean revealed rocks different from the subpolar islands – rocks which, as we now know, had completed their thousand-year pilgrimage in glaciers and bodies of floating ice and were then deposited at the bottom of the Southern Ocean when the ice inevitably melted. 

I was captivated by the icebergs. The large ones had more than two-thirds of their mass submerged under the cold dark water. What true giants they were. 

The Antarctic icebergs, too, are generally larger than the Arctic ones. Some are more than 100km in length.  

“You could put Penang on top of that and still have enough for KL. And that, my friend, is a lot of ais kacang,” a colleague observed. 

Depending on the origins of the ice and how they are formed, the bergs evolve into different shades of ice. The usual bergs are huge chunks of white ice, and you can visualise their origins as pieces of frozen platforms that broke off from the glacial tongue at the continental edge. 

But an iceberg is nature showing off its ability to create masterpieces from simplicity.  

Who would have thought that frozen water could be so beautiful? 

The shape of those ice sculptures passing my window tickles one’s imagination – a swan here, a prehistoric tree stripped of its leaves there or an ancient man brooding on a stool. 

And the ice we saw was multi-hued – from pure snow white to emerald green, and from shades of mint blue to the sooty black pieces that sometimes hide among the waves of the tempestuous sea. 

Blue ice, I was told, is created when sea ice forms under the weight of glaciers. Here, in the depths of the sea, gases are in solution and the ice, being free of these, absorbs all colours except the rich blue that we see. 

As the iceberg ages, tampered by the wind and waves, it becomes unstable and tumbles over revealing the sheer blue mass below. 

Blue ice, as you can imagine, is rare. But if you do see it, rejoice – it is something you are unlikely to forget.  

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