Ice is an artist generous with its sculptures. Beyond audience or applause, it creates in profusion for only one reason – that it has need to create.
Jay Griffiths, British writer

Some of nature’s most spectacular works of art are made by ice. What better place to see them than Antarctica, the frozen continent? Below are some highlights of icy art that we were lucky enough to see in and nearby the Dry Valleys.

 

A rare 360° sun halo above Garwood Valley. Picture by: Walter Andriuzzi

A rare full sun halo above Garwood Valley. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

The first piece in our gallery was made by the collective effort of millions, billions of tiny artists: ice crystals in the atmosphere refract the sunlight and create a faint rainbow ring around the sun.

 

Blue and white ice in the McMurdo Sound. Picture by: Walter Andriuzzi

Mazes of blue and white ice in the McMurdo Sound. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

Most of the ice we see in Antarctica is white (duh!), but as we go to our field sites we often fly over mazes of blue ice in the McMurdo Sound. Blue ice is formed when snow falls on the ice, gets compressed under its own weight, and loses air bubbles, and the ice crystals then expand.

 

Lake Bonney, beautifully frozen. Photo by: Andy Thompson

Lake Bonney, beautifully frozen. Photo by: Andy Thompson

Blue ice can sometimes be seen also in the lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, as in Lake Bonney in the picture above, taken in November 2014. Here you can see the air bubbles, and even the ripples on the water surface, perfectly frozen.

 

Ice stalagmites stalactites on the edge of Canada Glacier, in Taylor Valley. Italian scientist for scale. Picture by: Summer Xue

Ice stalagmites stalactites on the edge of Canada Glacier, in Taylor Valley. Italian scientist for scale. Photo by: Summer Xue

The glaciers in the Dry Valleys are huge monsters of ice, and their fangs are fittingly impressive, easily taller than a person. If you prefer a more peaceful analogy, you may think of them as meditative giants, whose thoughts emerge as music – the dripping and cracking of melting ice.

 

Freeze-dried cyanobacterial mats on a frozen lake surface. Photo by: Andy Thompson

Freeze-dried cyanobacterial mats on a frozen lake surface. Photo by: Andy Thompson

Our last piece is courtesy of a collaboration between ice and life: freeze-dried cyanobacterial mats on the surface of a frozen lake. These formations of microbial and algal biofilms (plus entrapped sediment) are only active for a few weeks per year in the Dry Valleys, when it’s warm enough for liquid water. During the long Antarctic winter, when it’s too cold and dark for photosynthesis, they enter a freeze-dried state to survive. How long can they keep it up? Nobody knows, but at the very least for two decades. And once water comes back, they can reactivate within mere hours.

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The beauty of ice is one of the big attractions of Antarctica. However, beauty may conceal danger. Last week, scientists working elsewhere in Antarctica found that an immense iceberg, as big as the US state of Delaware, is almost ready to break away from western Antarctica. Events such as this will become ever more frequent under climate change, and their cumulative consequences will reach far beyond Antarctica, contributing to the global sea level rise that we are already witnessing.

Written by: Walter Andriuzzi

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