Glaciers, sometimes existing for thousands of years, represent massive, but starkly beautiful, white-and-blue sculptures of ice. All are intriguing, but become even more so when they are only accessible by a single, one-way, rarely used passage, as is the Skua Glacier in Chile.
At 1130 on March 7, 2007, Celebrity Cruise Line’s 2,000-passenger Infinity turned into the channel leading to Skua Glacier. Two foamy, turquoise-and-white enturbulations, created by the gas turbine-powered azipods below the stern, fanned out into ripples toward the banks of the otherwise solid, glass-appearing fjord behind the 91,000-ton ship. The fjord itself, a flooded glacier valley terminating on land, had been created over the millennia by its weight. With progressive melting, seawater had flooded into it. Between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago, during the last glacial maximum, this area had been covered by the several thousand feet-thick Patagonian ice sheet.
As if transported to the topographical surface of another planet, the ship penetrated endless peaks and curvatures of greens and grays, which passed both on its sides and, with distance, behind it. A snow-blanketed mountain, resembling the ski slopes of Switzerland, appeared ahead and on the starboard side.
Creeping closer, it commenced a right arc at 1445, now gliding through blue-green, miniature iceberg-specked water. The peaks grew jagged and sharp. Flightless steamer ducks vainlessly attempted to churn their wings and become airborne to escape the “giant” lumbering by them.
The fjord, reflecting the pine-draped mountain off the starboard side, like a mirror, took on a deep green hue. The widely scattered iceberg “chips” multiplied into an increasingly dense mosaic of ice.
Turning to the left at 1530 and moving at a snail’s pace, the Infinity made its final approach to Skua Glacier which, baked by brilliant, unobstructed sunlight, rose like a mighty, geological triumph of white snow and blue ice from the fjord to its 300-foot summit at the end of the channel and, seemingly, at the end of the world.
Snow, falling toward and collecting in, the semi-horizontal ravines of high-elevation mountains called “accumulation zones,” collects and, because of the low temperatures, fails to melt, compacting itself into ice. Individual snowflakes change into “firns” or granules of ice within 60 days and, after a one-year period, lose almost all of their distinguishing characteristics, sublimating into single blocks of ice. Each glacial layer is the result of a later, successive snowfall.
As weight-induced pressure increases a glacier’s density, air is expelled and the ice aligns with itself, absorbing all colors of the spectrum with the exception of blue, which is refracted out.
Gravity causes ice to flow earthward, down hills, during which time it plows recessed paths designated “moraines” into the rock which follow mountain features and contours during their descents. Acting like conveyor belts, they snatch, pulverize, and carry any substance encountered, including stone, rock, pebbles, and sand.
Glacial history is often reflected topographically: jagged pointed mountain peaks, for example, known as “nunataks,” were progressively sharpened and narrowed by the weight of ice below them, but were never covered with glaciers themselves, while smooth, rounded tops were shaped by glacial ice coverage.
The melt water, usually turquoise in color, contains all the geological particles glaciers had reduced to silt, some of their material so fine that it is called “glacial flour.”
Icebergs, which occur when the ice meets the warmer sea water and calve, or break off, exist autonomously, but, contrary to popular misconception, do not float due to their extreme weights.
Of the Skua Glacier’s two arms, the first of these—and the largest—featured a steep, straight-pathed decline from the thick snow to blue-hued ice partially projecting into the fjord. So high and thick had the jagged, cracked glass-appearing ice been, that it possessed a sheer vertical drop into the silver water. The second, and smaller, arm, on the right, had created a dual-turned, backward-S-patterned path from its snow basin to the fjord ice. Separating the two had been two smooth, inverted bowl-appearing domes, the higher and larger of the two partially covered with snow and the lower and smaller of the two blanketed by dark green pine.
Cutting through the ice-littered turquoise with its protruding, bulbous bow, the Infinity, an otherwise behemoth dwarfed and “humbled” by the glacier, commenced a one-knot, 180-degree rotation to port, the ship’s draft now too deep to permit closer inspection. The Skua Glacier, devoid of population and land access, assuredly must have viewed the ship as an intruder at its silent, untouched, end-of-the-fjord and end-of-the-world location, to which there had only been a single water passage serving as both entrance and exit. The ship had, nevertheless, made a contrastive statement: designed by man, it had required a year for construction, while the glacier, designed by nature, had needed a millennium to form. Both had represented evolutions.
Retreating in the opposite direction, the mega-ship, having temporarily brought civilization to this isolated spot, slowly crept away, leaving only the ripple in the water formed by its wake behind it and the glacier to its time-suspended, human-devoid existence. Within minutes, even this had dissipated…and so had we…