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This week they built a road to McMurdo. Nobody voted or argued about it, but we all went out to watch the icebreaker Polar Sea cut a blue highway through the white sea ice.
When we first climbed the hills to look for the ship after Christmas, the Polar Sea was just a smudge of smoke anchored by a spot, too small to tell it was red. Since then we saw the spot grow to a dot, the dot expand to a blot, and finally take shape as a boat, dragging a dark line behind it. "It's strange how excited everyone is to see this, I mean, it's just a boat," said a man standing next to me with binoculars.
But it's the first boat. The road it carved will connect us to the world. Soon whales will feed in the open bay. Seals and penguins will take advantage of the open water to pop out of the water and rest on the icebergs. Behind that are tour boats, with people who will gawk at us as we gawk back, the same way scientists and penguins gawk at each other.
Behind the icebreaker comes the Green Wave, the supply ship, carrying all the fuel and equipment for the next year. The supplies were ordered a year ago and packed onto the ship last fall. Most of McMurdo will help unload the supplies just before we leave. Meanwhile we're asked to order what we think whoever is in our position in two years might need. Talk about delayed gratification.
And behind the Green Wave is the end, the planes that take us away. Already people are talking about leaving, finding boxes to pack things into and ship them home. Somewhere out there is a world of green trees, animals, children ... and bills, shopping malls, traffic. Too bad we can't have the green without the stress.
On New Year's Eve people gathered on a nearby point, holding beer cans, wine bottles and cameras, to cheer as the icebreaker pulled in front of town.
Over and over the Polar Sea backed up in the channel it had already cut, then surged forward full power with a grinding sound, pushing room-sized chunks of ice to the side. The front end would slide onto the ice, so the whole ship tipped slightly upward, then the weight of the ship caused the ice to surrender and the ship's bow would sink back down.
The engines sound like jets flying low overhead. The Polar Sea cuts through six feet of ice at three knots of speed. It can smash through up to 20 feet of ice by backing up and ramming. For the last five days it's done that, churning up chunks of ice where we used to land planes and drive trucks.
The Polar Sea and its sister ship, Polar Star, are the world's most powerful non-nuclear icebreakers. Last summer the Polar Star stopped in Juneau after pushing its way through the arctic ice with a load of scientists.
Arctic ice is much thicker than Antarctic sea ice. In the arctic, sea ice grows year after year to an average thickness of 10 feet. Antarctica is colder, but the sea ice is rarely more than a year old and averages only two feet, said Gerd Wendler, a professor from the Geophysical Institute at the
University of Fairbanks who researches around both poles. High winds blowing down from the Antarctic Plateau, 10,000 feet above, push the sea ice from shore, so new ice is constantly forming in its place. The winds don't develop in the arctic because it is a flat ocean, with no change in elevation for katabatic winds to blow down.
The average for Antarctic sea ice may be only two feet, but in the Ross Sea around McMurdo the ice is on the upper end of the scale. This year the Polar Sea struggled to break through soft ice about eight feet thick. The ice rebounded like rubber instead of cracking when they rammed it, "like hitting a pillow with a hammer," a Coast Guard lieutenant said.
The Polar Sea finally tied up Friday night, after breaking the harbor into a slurry. McMurdoites looked on with a mix of excitement and concern. Tales of past years preceded the ship, how one of the officers had to tour McMurdo in the morning, scooping up drunk sailors. This year the Coast Guard commander posted a simple mission statement on the ship, which the crew quickly took to heart: Break ice, drink beer. The official e-mail warning the ship was docking read: "Standby for storming of the beaches, the Viking pillagers are here..."
Here comes the first wave of the outside world and we stand on the beach, waiting for it to wash over us. I wish there was a way to go back into that world without drowning in it, to jump in the ice blue water and not get wet.
Kristan Hutchison is a Juneau Empire reporter on leave for four months to work in Antarctica. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A Web site with daily updates of her experiences, plus photos, movies and links to other Antarctica sites is at http://www.ptialaska.net/~crayola/antarctica.html.