Sea Ice

Sea ice around Antarctica varies from about 20 million square kilometers in September or October to about 2.5 million square kilometers in January or February.

   What is pack-ice?

Sea Ice At the beginning of the austral (southern) winter starting around March, the loose pack ice that has spent the summer months circling Antarctica begins to drift northwards. Pack ice is old sea-ice, frozen sea water that is a year old or more, it froze and formed elsewhere during the winter, later on breaking up and floating off with the winds and currents.

Pack ice is heavy stuff and when it arrives somewhere it has the effect of damping down the ocean swell, that continuous rise and fall of the sea even if there aren't any waves. The continuous rolling motion of the sea is stopped completely by a relatively narrow band of pack ice only 100m or so wide. The result is that where pack ice is present in reasonable quantity, the sea calms down sufficiently for low temperatures to freeze it easily - moving water cannot freeze as easily as static water.

Pack ice can be very dangerous to boats and ships when closely pushed together. It can make it impossible for all but powerful icebreakers to make progress through it, instead the ship has to go where the ice wants to drift. If it is not closely pushed together, it can become so as a result of wind and tide, so it is always best approached with caution. Pack ice can be pushed by distant storms bringing violent movement to an otherwise calm scene. In this way, pack ice has been responsible for the destruction of many ships, especially in the days of wooden sailing ships, including the loss of Ernest Shackleton's ship, the Endurance.

  What is fast-ice?

Sea Ice This is sea-ice in the very early stages of formation. Sea-ice that forms in situ and attached to the coast is called "fast-ice", it is stuck fast. In this picture the surface of the sea is beginning to freeze as the temperature is dropping to -20C and below.

Pack ice has come near to the shore and so all movement of the sea has been killed completely allowing low temperatures to freeze the sea water. At this stage the ice is around an inch or 2.5cm thick but it has a spongy texture, you could poke a finger or certainly a fist through it relatively easily.

The patterned effect comes from the rise and fall of the tides. As the tide rises, so the surface of the sea enlarges slightly and so the ice cracks apart, as the tide falls, so the surface of the sea decreases slightly and so the slabs of ice overlap at the edges.

  Does the tide affect the way the sea freezes? What is a tide crack?

Once fast ice (sea-ice frozen in situ) has become established, the patterns of the earlier pieces disappears. The tide still rises and falls however meaning that the sea surface expands and shrinks slightly as it does so.

Tide cracks result from this (as ice is not known for its elastic properties!) that are formed when the ice moves apart, they close again when the tide falls. A tide crack is often many miles long, in the picture to the lower left it is around 5 miles (8 kilometres), but never more than about 18", 45cm wide between Signy and Coronation Islands in the South Orkneys group.

Tide cracks are valuable resources for wild-life as they provide a region where birds such as snow petrels can fish through for krill and also as a breathing hole for crabeater and Weddell seals.

  What are ice pancakes?

Sea Ice The ice here is known as "pancake-ice". This is formed when slabs of ice that are forming are jostled by the wind and / or movement of the sea. 

The pieces of ice bash against each other and start to curl upwards at the edges. It is a common stage in the formation of a continuous ice surface on the sea, lakes or rivers, anywhere where the freezing process is disturbed somewhat leading to jostling of the individual pancake pieces. It usually results in a smooth icy surface with no indication of this intermediary stage.

"Pancakes of submerged ice joined with others into great sheets, the rubbery green ice thickened, an ice foot fastened onto the shore, binding the sea with the land. Liquid became solid, solid was buried under crystals."
Annie Proulx - The Shipping News

  Do ice-bergs move around when the sea freezes?

Sea Ice

Heavy pack ice and grounded icebergs  This kind of ice looks smooth from a distance, but is very hard and slow going to traverse. It is made up of last years pack ice (frozen sea-ice) that broke up, partially melted and became far from a smooth surface during the summer.

Now, in the winter, the random shaped, uneven pieces have been cemented together by frozen sea water in between. The result is a very rugged surface where the quickest way to travel is by foot, vehicles or skis require so much continuous stop-start and change of direction that they actually slow you down.

The ice-bergs that you see in the distance have been frozen in position and will remain so until they are freed by the spring break-up of the surrounding sea-ice, in the meantime it's possible to walk out to them, though it's slow going across the very rough broken up surface.

  What happens to fast ice in the summer?

At the end of the winter, rising oceanic swells and increasing temperatures cause the stable winter sea-ice to break-up and begin to drift away from where it formed.  This years fast-ice therefore becomes next years pack-ice with a portion of it melting and disappearing completely.

In the left hand picture an ice-breaker, the Kapitan Khlebnikov is breaking through thinning ice in the spring, the open water is where ice has already broken out from, the rest will join it before long. In the right hand picture, a polar bear taking a well earned break during a marathon swim in the Arctic is rudely interrupted by a ship he suspects has its beady eye on his ice floe.