On the 4th December 2021, lucky passengers on a Chimu Adventures Antarctica Scenic Flight spotted a romantic natural phenomenon sticking out of the windswept ice of Antarctica.
Prominent photojournalist, Matthew Abbott snapped the incredible image (above) of the frozen rock formation embedded in ancient glacial ice, only a short distance away from McMurdo research station on the southern tip of Ross Island.
I didn’t know it existed. I saw the shape and it reminded me of Heart Reef in the Whitsundays…it was just by chance that I saw it. I love it.Matthew Abbott
Found on the highest, driest, windiest, and coldest continent on the planet – Antarctica – this beautiful, naturally formed heart shape, has lain lonely for a very long time on the McMurdo Ice shelf. With experts suggesting it was possibly born during the last ice age, roughly 16,000 years ago.
Abbott’s stunning composition conjures references to the naturally formed heart reef that is found on the Great Barrier reef. However, its Antarctic cousin is somewhat larger, at approximately 400 m in diameter compared to 17 meters for the reef version.
To be over the McMurdo ice shelf, on a clear day, and see the ‘Antarctic Heart’ is one of the world’s unique experiences.Chad Carey, Chimu’s co-founder
Spotted about 25 km from the McMurdo airstrip, how this lonely heart found its way out onto McMurdo Ice Shelf (a section of the Ross Ice Shelf) is a topic for speculation, given it has possibly taken thousands of years to find its way to this exact spot and due to the unique nature of the Ross Ice shelf. On this, the largest body of floating ice on the planet, material from the shallow seafloor below it can be exchanged with surface matter along the continental margin.
To understand more about the formation, we took the photo to Professor Neil Glasser, an accomplished Antarctic glaciologist at the University of Aberdeen who was stationed at McMurdo base in 2004 and studied the ice formations that covered the ice shelf.
Prof. Glasser explained that the frozen heart is composed of rocks and sediment transported from the Transantarctic Mountains, with the heart likely having taken shape during the last Ice Age approx. 16,000 years ago as the flow direction of the ice shelf changed!
The Ice Swirls on the McMurdo Ice shelf have undergone several phases of deformation over thousands of years and the heart shape appears to be detached folds, representing two or three different generations as the ice floe changed direction.Professor Neil Glasser
Exactly what the material of the frozen heart is made of, needs further investigation but, upon studying the images, it would appear to be surface, due to the similarity to the sediments pouring from the surrounding landscape. Once upon a time, the sediment was likely folded in a more organised manner.
Some studies into the material in this area suggest the rocks are survivors from ages past and may have sat on the surface for a very long time, likely pushed out during the ice age giving the shapes thousands of years to form. When researching past papers on the area, images of the perfect shaped heart can be found from studies in the 70s.
How long it will stay there is hard to predict. Several factors come into play including the direction of ice flows, snowdrifts and even environmental change. The Ross Ice Shelf is like a giant raft, fed by giant glaciers or ice streams that brings ice down from the high polar ice sheet. Only loosely attached to the land, giant rifts regularly develop behind the ice shelf’s barrier giving birth to huge tabular icebergs. The shelf is in constant, albeit very slow movement. The warming of the planet can speed this up.
To view this spectacle, in all its beauty, you need to be a) in the air b) flying over the McMurdo Ice Shelf c) there on a clear day. Whilst snapping the heart makes a sensational image for Instagrammers, it also represents the delicacy of this icy wilderness and the earth we need to protect.
We operate Antarctica Scenic Flights out of multiple Australian capital cities during the summer season. Each flight provides approximately 3 – 4 hours of viewing time over Antarctica. Every departure is unique. Together with the Qantas team, we carefully consider a number of factors, including weather, cloud cover and ice conditions to help provide you with the best viewing experience on the day.