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Our writer joins the first winter expedition ever into Antarctica's Amundsen and Ross Seas
Like a Magic Galleon sailing over a frozen white landscape, a ship longer than a football field glides through eerie ice fields that stretch to the horizon and thousands of kilometers beyond, broken only by low ridges and jagged cracks that reveal clear lapis lazuli ocean.
One of the cracks begins to close. Like watermelon seeds squeezed from a fist, 43 Adelie penguins pop from the crack. Clowns on call, each one as it ejects from the water bumps into the one ahead, resulting in a tumble of tiny black bodies. They seem as surprised at their surroundings as if they had been accidentally beamed from the starship Enterprise.
This icescape is no surreal dream. It is the Antarctic's winter ice pack, covering an area of sea nearly twice the size of the United States. The ship is the Nathaniel B. Palmer, a two-year-old research vessel named for the naval officer who, in 1820, became the first American to claim a sighting of the Antarctic continent. (Who can claim the first view is not entirely clear, since a Russian and an Englishman also sighted the continent that year.) The ship is capable of cutting through ice a meter thick. She is provider, protector and sole lifeline to civilization for 53 souls who have ventured during winter into Antarctica's remote Amundsen and Ross Seas, marking the first time in history that a ship has visited these waters in winter. In fact, this is one of perhaps only a dozen times that any research ship has intentionally ventured for an extended voyage deep into the Southern Ocean's winter pack ice.
I am on board, participating in a U.S. National Science Foundation program that sends journalists to the Antarctic and Arctic. This is a coveted scientific odyssey that will allow me to accompany scientists to one of the most remote and least explored parts of the world. The trip will give me a chance to see and write about a part of Antarctica to which few people have traveled. The ship sails in search of new information about ice and global climate, but the voyage also will plunge me into the coldest region of the Earth during the most forbidding season. I will engage in scientific research, encounter Adelies and other penguins as well as the krill and other tiny life-forms that form the biological foundation of the area. I will also encounter, more directly than I could ever have imagined, the icy waters of Antarctica.
Until relatively recently, biologists thought that Antarctica's winter sea ice was a monolithic sheet, like the solid, quiet ice that covers a Maine lake. They also believed that it was devoid of life, that the creatures that lived during warmer months in the upper reaches of the ocean died, fled or hibernated on the bottom of the sea when the ice came.
However, in the 10 years since the first oceanographic research vessel, Germany's Polarstern, timidly penetrated Antarctica's pack ice in winter 1986, scientists have done an about-face. The ice, they learned, pulses and …