Sipping Scotch Chilled by an Iceberg

What hunting for cocktail ice in Antarctica taught me about climate change. An Object Lesson.

Gentoo penguins in front of the B15-Y Tabular iceberg (Michelle Iwen)

On a balmy summer’s day near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, I found myself sipping a single-malt scotch cooled by a thousand-year old iceberg. It was my last day in Antarctica, and I was determined to enjoy it in the style of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration—a splash of whisky warming my throat and a sprinkle of fat snowflakes in my hair. The moment was inspired by (but probably less significant than) the 2007 discovery of Ernest Shackleton’s highland blend, buried a century before at his base camp at Cape Royds.

An iceberg begins to die from the moment of its birth. The chip of it cooling my Glenmorangie may have been 10,000 years old. It began with a glacial snowfall on the Antarctic continent, the snowflakes compressing gradually from layers of additional snow and the slow, inevitable movement toward the sea.

Once an iceberg has calved from its glacier into the sea, a combination of warmer water, wind, waves, and occasional scraping along the ocean floor help to erode it away from within, eventually turning island-sized icebergs into a sea of what is known as brash ice, the dangerous chunky soup made up of the remnants of ice collisions and melting freshwater.

Upon our ship’s arrival to the Antarctic Peninsula a week earlier, we were greeted by tabular iceberg B15-Y, the 25th sub-iceberg to break off from its originator, B15. The largest iceberg ever measured at more than 4,200 square miles, or roughly the size of Connecticut, B15 calved off from Ross Ice Shelf in 2000 and has been circulating in the waters surrounding Antarctica ever since, shedding large pieces of itself due to the continual structural weakening from beneath its waterline.

Our iceberg, B15-Y, was one of the smaller pieces and spanned a mere 20 miles of steep-edged, flat-topped ice. Large icebergs like B15 can live up to 50 years if they don’t drift into warmer waters, a decent lifespan considering the continued depredation of warmer liquid water to ice. Yet I felt an ominous sense of both the indescribable immensity and ultimate fragility of B15-Y as we sailed past, watching the waves lap at shadowed hollows at the waterline, the occasional tumble of a small ice chunk splashing down from large cracks on the blue-white ice face that extended hundreds of feet above the water. Later in the journey, every small iceberg or thick stew of partially frozen grease ice became a piece of dying B15-Y for me, all symbolic evidence of the delicate complexity of nature, and our own hand in speeding the death of such sublime natural monuments. Indeed, the Antarctic Peninsula is experiencing some of the fastest warming in the world, and to see a monolith as large as the B15 iceberg as a precursor to larger ice-sheet breakups is a sobering thought.

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Earlier that morning on our last day in Antarctica, our expedition team had fished growlers from the brash ice during a zodiac tour around a sheltered, iceberg-laden bay. Growlers are small hunks of ice of less than two meters that occur when an iceberg, or a smaller bergy-bit of between five and 15 meters, has disintegrated. Brash ice, while made up of small bergy-bits and growlers, as well as the nameless apple-sized ice chunks in a constant state of melt, is deceptively dangerous to ships in a way that massive icebergs like B15-Y are not. Because brash ice looks like a milky stew of harmless ice chunks, it can hide the sharp depths of non-tabular icebergs and the incredibly strong, dense glacial ice that can rip open a ship’s hull. Indeed, earlier in the trip our ship was blocked from the entrance of Cuverville Island by a congested floe of brash ice, forcing us to disembark elsewhere.

Yet, it was this type of brash ice that we later found ourselves up close to during our zodiac expedition, the air-filled watercraft skimming around the edges of bergy-bits and able to push small growlers out of the way with a pole. In a sheltered bay near Esperanza Station, a scientific outpost staffed by the Argentine military, we watched lazy Weddel seals sun themselves on a shared bergy-bit next to two Gentoo penguins. Our expedition leader, an Irish biologist studying southern birds, fished small chunks of clear-bubbled ice directly from the water as he worked to dislodge a sharp edged growler from beneath the propeller. He encouraged us to taste the ice, licking off the overlying salt water to find the pure, flavorless cold underneath.

“If you hold it in your bare hand long enough to speed the melting, you’ll hear it fizzle,” he told us. The fizzy pop of bergy seltzer is a familiar, yet unexpected sound. It sounds like a freshly opened can of soda, as the bubbles newly freed from the ice travel up toward the surface of the water. Yet the mundane sound of bergy seltzer belies the sinister power of melt against the bottom of the iceberg. Each bubble released scores the surface of the ice, compromising its structural integrity. We held the ice shards in our hands to make it fizz, let our skin burn against the freeze, as our expedition guide hoisted the free-floating remnants of a tiny growler into the zodiac to be chipped apart and consumed in cocktails that evening.

The thick clusters of icebergs and ubiquitous loud honking of penguin colonies slipped past us as the ship began to rock more aggressively while moving outside of the shelter of the Peninsula islands. A surprising discovery I’d made about Antarctica: the depth of summer warmth. While climbing up to Neptune’s Window in the sheltered caldera of Deception Island, I had to take off my parka to cool down while hiking thigh-deep in snow. Yet, the farther we travelled from the sheltering island rock formations, the colder the wind became. The gentle burn of the whisky warmed my cheeks as I watched snow begin to fall vertically, then horizontally from our ship’s speed, falling clumped and wet on the deck where passengers no longer strolled.

The clarity and tiny bubbles trapped in my particular ice shard proved that it was younger than some, less compressed than the opaque blue of an ancient glacial iceberg. That deep opacity and color forms from the absorption of long-wavelength red light, while reflecting the shorter blue wavelength. The densest, oldest icebergs are sky blue in color.

It wasn’t until my glass was more water than alcohol that I actually tasted the iceberg. A hint of mineral, similar to licking a stone or drinking unfiltered water from a glacial stream. I later learned that icebergs calving from glaciers in both Greenland and Antarctica deposit substantial quantities of iron into the ocean, the rates of which are only expected to increase with continued global warming. Massive icebergs like B15 have deleterious impacts on wildlife, including penguins—forcing them to travel ever farther to get back to their chicks. But they also have a positive influence on some biota, like phytoplankton. Did I taste a hint of iron from the ghost of 10,000 year old glacial ice? It might just be the chemical pollutants from the tourist cruise ships that bring up to 30,000 people a year to Antarctica, most of them Americans like me.

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My 10,000-mile journey took me from Phoenix to Atlanta, to Buenos Aires, to Ushuaia, to Antarctica. The Glenmorangie traversed 15,000 miles from its inception via mineral-rich rainwater and distillation in Tain, Scotland, through ten years of aging in Kentucky bourbon barrels and two years in Spanish sherry casks, while a single, perfect chip of finely bubbled ice may have circumnavigated a continent before melting ignominiously in my glass. The meeting of a desert native, a tony whisky, and the dying remnants of ancient ice makes for a good story to tell over drinks. And yet, assembling that story also contributes to the very carbon footprint that, over time, destroys glaciers. To consume scotch and iceberg ice plucked directly from the brash ice beneath our zodiac made me complicit in the consumption of the fragile natural resources of a continent that has until recently escaped significant human occupation and destruction. And yet, without communing with these eternal glaciers, can humanity ever understand them sufficiently to preserve them?

As I took the first sip of my scotch I expected some sort of thunderclap of significance. Here I was at the end of the world, one of my biggest-bucket list items crossed off with a flourish. I desperately wanted this moment of decadence to resonate in some sort of life-changing way. Yet the warmth of a Highland single malt on my tongue, tempered by the ice, was nothing more than a pleasant, prosaic experience. That’s not a bad aspiration for all human relationships with the globe’s glaciers: ordinary objects that remain familiar even though far away, rather than becoming exceptional by means of their destruction.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.