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‘SOLID WATER LIQUID ROCK’

Final Script

 

TIME CODE

NARRATION

 

 

00:10  00:16

'SOLID WATER LIQUID ROCK’

 

 

00:21

Chaos was the state before being.  It begat Erebus – the darkness of the underworld.

 

 

0032

There is a mountain much like the Erebus that ancient Greeks first described.

 

 

00:40

It stands in Antarctica – a place where darkness descends for half a year.

 

 

00:54

Where the moon as if lost, endlessly circles the polar night.

 

 

01:02

Where the restless waters of the ocean freeze and fuse with the ice covered continent.

 

 

01:19

A place where time, seasons, elements, day, and night have all been transformed.

 

 

01:29

Where solid water encounters liquid rock.

 

 

01:54

This landscape from another planet erupted into being from a cluster of fiery cauldrons.

 

 

02:06

Liquid rock frozen in time in this frozen place.

 

 

02:16

We’re about to make a journey to the fire that still burns inside the southern most volcano on planet earth – Antarctica’s Mount Erebus.

 

 

02:49

In early summer the volcano stands on the edge of a vast plain of sea ice which surrounds Antarctica for half a year.

 

 

03:07

At the boundary between this seasonal sea ice and the permanent ice shelf in McMurdo Sound, stands Ross Island, dominated by Mount Erebus.

 

 

03:23

By winters end the frozen sea is two metres thick and has doubled the size of the continent.

 

 

03:38

Mount Erebus was first explored by six members of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition in 1908.

 

 

03:46

Though there have been many explorations since, our journey will be unlike any previous attempt.

 

 

03:55

Our ascent will begin out on the sea ice close to the cliffs of the floating Erebus glacier tongue.  But in order to go up we must first go down.

 

 

04:08

The starting point is to be the base of the mountain 300 metres below the sea ice.

 

 

04:19

We’re not designed to live and work in this place.  Even in the height of summer, survival clothing is essential.

 

 

04:27

Our preparations slow and awkward, are observed by Antarctica’s only permanent mammal the Weddell seal.

 

 

04:38

The 300 metre dive may be routine for a Weddell seal, but its totally beyond our physical ability.  Instead the electronic eye of PHANTOM, a remotely operated vehicle will begin the journey for us down through a window in the ice.

 

 

04:59

It will make the deepest explorations yet attempted beneath Antarctica’s frozen sea.

 

 

05:19

The three centimetre thick fibre optic cable will carry down navigation instructions and send up pictures of a hidden world.

A world we’ve never seen before.

 

 

05:47

For 200 metres its descending flight path tracks close to the immense floating tongue of the Erebus glacier.

 

 

05:58

The soft folds of glacial ice are then left behind.

 

 

06:16

At 250 metres below the sea ice a Weddell seal leads the way onwards and downwards.

 

 

06:31

Finally, contact with the bottom close to 300 metre below the surface.

 

 

06:43

From here PHANTOM begins our ascent of Mount Erebus and a strange ‘garden’ is slowly revealed.

 

 

06:57

Could plants possibly exist so very far from the suns light?… this is surely a garden of animals.

 

 

07:08

Beds of giant sponges some more than a metre across.

 

 

07:16

How long have these ghostly hordes existed here in black seclusion?

 

 

07:27

Perhaps their success lies in being unappetising to predators – little wonder as their bodies are strengthened with needles of glass.

 

 

07:41

The venus flower basket sponge yields slowly to the current.  Its use of glass though, goes far beyond mere protection.  The tall body is supported by a strong and elaborate glass skeleton.

 

 

08:01

The seas around Erebus are rich in the element silicon which this sponge crystallises into intricate design and sturdy function.

 

 

08:15

We have entered a world of giants.  Almost every creature is bigger than its warmer relations.

 

 

08:25

There are predators about.

 

 

08:29

Sea spiders are normally the size of a fingernail, this giant is the size of a hand, and gives new meaning to the word “chase”.

 

 

08:40

But speed requires energy, and here energy is too precious a commodity to waste.

 

 

08:50

Another giant.  A starfish half a metre across.

 

 

09:03

Branching filter feeders seem common.  Perhaps a tree  like form is the best way to catch food down here.

 

 

09:13

Survival for many depends on snaring food, but what food?

 

 

09:20

They feed on plankton; a rich soup of microscopic plants and animals that ultimately sustains all life in Antarctica.

 

 

09:28

Many of the tiny animals are shrimp like.

 

 

09:32

But there are also worms, snails, starfish and a host of other tasty morsels.

 

 

09:48

Among the branching filter feeders PHANTOM encounters one that is quite ‘outstanding’.

 

 

09:57

It’s a feather star or crinoid, but what makes this one so different is it’s ability to get up and move about.

 

 

10:26

Perhaps the PHANTOM’S lights or the vibrations of its motors have summoned this crinoid to the dance.

 

 

10:34

Why it should perform its graceful flight when all else moves so slowly or not at all remains a mystery.

 

 

11:15

Further up the slope PHANTOM reveals an ice fish.  It’s blood being sucked by a giant sea louse.

 

 

11:25

Its blood is unique.  This is the only back boned animal on earth without red blood.

 

 

11:32

A subtlety that means little to an awaiting anemone whose tentacles grab at the passing ice fish.  It escapes and is scraped of its louse.

 

 

11:46

How the ice fish survives without red blood to carry oxygen is another mystery of the deep.

 

 

11:59

PHANTOM emerges from the darkness for its final ascent of the Erebus Glacier.

 

 

12:19

This extraordinary tongue of solid water is 10 kilometres long, up to 300 metres thick and growing at the rate of 100 metres a year.

 

 

12:35

Further on and up PHANTOM encounters more familiar life forms.

 

 

12:42

Our divers wait at the maximum safe depth of 30 metres.  Like athletes in a relay they will take up on the next leg of our journey.

 

 

13:18

This vast, slow moving frozen colossus is not lifeless.

 

 

13:24

Divers are surprised to discover several species literally living on ice.

 

 

13:31

How can a fish live so close to the ice without itself becoming frozen?

 

 

13:38

Perhaps the fish is gagging to remove ice crystals from its gills.

 

 

13:45

But the real answer is inside the fish.  It has a natural antifreeze which prevents ice crystals from building up and freezing it.

 

 

14:07

Along the glacier toward the shore the divers find the sea ice above them buckled and tilted.

 

 

14:18

This is a pressure zone where the glacier is ploughing through the sea ice creating a eerie landscape of caves and canyons.

 

 

14:36

They explore the inner chambers of this chilly labyrinth.

 

 

14:49

The deepest recesses are lifeless but their surfaces bristle with ice like broken glass.

 

 

15:09

The sea ice beyond the pressure zone. This vast and impenetrable creation of the polar night will disappear during Antarctica’s long day.

 

 

15:22

And in late summer the ocean laps at the shores of Mount Erebus.

 

 

15:26

But as another winter approaches and air temperatures plummet, a remarkable phenomenon signals the return of the ice.

 

 

15:36

The sea begins to steam as if close to boiling - in fact it’s close to freezing but still warmer than the air above.

 

 

15:47

Across the surface of the water ice crystals begin tentatively to link together.

 

 

15:55

Then the temperature drops even further and the surface ice thickens. Long crystal fingers splay down to a depth of two metres.

 

 

16:27

The ice sheet spreads rapidly.  Not by freezing sea water but by crystallising pure water from the salty sea.  Four months after the sea smoke has cleared 19 million square kilometres of sea ice surrounds Antarctica.

 

 

16:51

But the return of sunlight in spring brings little warmth.  The sun is low and the ice reflects back nearly all the suns heat.  For weeks temperatures remain perilously cold.

 

 

17:06

The sea ice is thickened by blown snow into a ridge and trough ice-scape called “sastrugi”.

 

 

17:13

A summer sun that never sets, bathes Antarctica in more sunshine than the tropics, yet the reflective whiteness holds the continent in a frozen grip.

 

 

17:25

Antarctica is so cold that it has a powerful influence on the weather of the whole planet.

 

 

17:37

Where snow doesn’t cover sea ice, sufficient light penetrates for algae to bloom in an upside down meadow.

 

 

17:49

The summer harvest provides vital energy for creatures  big and small in the sub ice community.

 

 

18:05

Closer to the shore our divers discover that the under surface of the sea ice grows other things too.

 

 

18:16

They find themselves among ice curtains.

 

 

18:26

When sea water freezes salt is separated and trapped between ice crystals.

 

 

18:32

As the ice melts in summer, this heavy cold brine sinks into the surrounding water, freezing it into wonderful ice tubs or stalactites.

 

 

18:55

Some grow to immense size and have the delicate beauty of hanging chandeliers scattering filtered sunlight on the undersea slopes of Mount Erebus.

 

 

19:11

Closer to Ross Island another striking display of solid water is discovered growing on the bottom.  It reaches its lowest limit near 30 metres.

 

 

19:27

This is anchor ice and although ice usually floats on water somehow this is anchored to the bottom.

 

 

19:41

When disturbed, anchor ice flutters to the surface to join the rest of the sea ice.

 

 

19:48

It forms quickly and may trap the unlucky or the slow.

 

 

19:55

While others escape its icy grip.

 

 

20:09

Creatures frozen to the bottom and them dislodged end their lives near the surface.

 

 

20:21

Our divers find where there’s anchor ice life is sparse.  But red star fish have gathered here in their multitudes, lured by something tasty.

 

 

20:40

Perhaps a dead fish has attracted so many diners.

 

 

20:44

But no; On the menu today is manna from heaven – seal excrement.

 

 

20:52

Directly above the banquet is a Weddell seal’s breathing hole.

 

 

21:00

It uses it’s teeth and wide opening jaws to keep open this vital door of life between air and water.

 

 

21:08

Breathing holes are almost always found along the pressure and tide cracks in the sea ice.

 

 

21:15

Without these weaknesses in the ice – Weddell seals would drown below or starve above.

 

 

21:24

Like all mammals Weddell seals need air to breathe. But the water below is their hunting domain.

 

 

21:40

Above the water the ice is their earth, below it is their sky.

 

 

21:55

During the winters long night some seals remain beneath the ice close to Ross Island, surfacing only to snatch quick breaths of super chilled air.

 

 

22:13

Throughout the vastness of their crystal roofed underworld the strange calls of these remarkable creatures penetrate the darkness.

 

 

23:00

By inflating their lungs, they gently levitate to lie up against the under surface of the sea ice like blimps.

 

 

23:11

They may spend an hour in this weightless state of suspended relaxation.

 

 

23:22

Near the shore pressure waves rear up like rolling surf frozen in time.  But unlike surf elsewhere which crashes against a seabed rich in marine life, here, the frozen waves scrape the bottom clean.

 

 

23:44

Ice and mountain have finally come together.

 

 

23:51

Our journey will now take up away from this still, dark, world of the Weddell seal which has no up; no down; just space.

 

 

24:09

Freeing ourselves from direction like a seal allows us to experience their, upside down, topsy turvey world beneath the ice.

 

 

24:29

The Weddell seal moves through its altered space with graceful ease.

 

 

24:39

And through its eyes we see no boundaries but the ever changing sea ice.

 

 

24:46

In the underworld we evade reality and gravity… for a short time.

 

 

25:33

After just 30 minutes at –2 degrees Celsius our divers must surface.

 

 

25:46

To stay longer would risk hypothermia and possibly death as body temperatures drop dangerously.

 

 

26:01

The 12 millimetre thick rubber suits merely give the divers temporary protection from the cold.  They’re certainly no match for the Weddell seals 100 millimetre thick insulating blubber.

 

 

26:23

Our divers must leave the icy sea to those it belongs to.

 

 

26:42

The transition from solid water to solid rock is abrupt.

 

 

26:52

The rock is aged according to when it was liquid, when it erupted from Mount Erebus.

 

 

27:00

The cliffs nearest the sea are estimated to be a million years old but we will find the rock progressively younger as we ascend the volcano.

 

 

27:17

Our route onto the mountain will take us out over the sea ice.

 

 

27:23

A tide crack.  It may be a life support for a Weddell seal but it can be a death trap for us.

 

 

27:35

Its an essential routine of sea ice travel to inspect the thickness of each tide crack.

 

 

27:46

A solid and secure appearance above often belies a severely eroded under surface.

 

 

28:10

The journey to the northern slopes of the mountain takes us around the tip of the 10 kilometre long Erebus glacier tongue whose giant saw like teeth are carved by friction as the glacier spills from the land.

 

 

28:27

When ocean swells sweep into the bay this massive tongue of ice flexes and ripples.

 

 

28:33

Then every 40 years or so a third of its mass breaks off.

 

 

28:41

Among the crevasses near the present tip are ice caves.

 

 

28:47

The floors of the caves are actually sea ice, and when it melts later in the summer the caves have no floor at all.

 

 

29:01

Then as autumn comes and the sea outside begins to smoke, a magic spell is cast turning the vapour into crystals of hoar frost.

 

 

29:40

Outside summer temperatures are warm enough to melt parts of the glacier.

 

 

29:47

Melting by day, freezing by night, stalactites chronicle the progress of summer.

 

 

29:59

But glaciers can chronicle the ‘progress’ of centuries.

 

 

30:04

As snow from years past is laid down in layers so are atmospheric impurities from those years and just like rings of a tree these ice layers can be read by taking core samples.

 

 

30:41

By gazing into the past we can assess the present even perhaps predict the future.

 

 

30:50

For example, greenhouse gases locked in the ice, trace climate changes down through the years of this century.

 

 

30:59

But the deepest cores in other parts of Antarctica offer us a journey through the whole of human history.

 

 

31:09

There’s ice from snow which fell in the year Columbus sailed to America; Deeper, ice from the time of Christ; Deeper still, from the age of the pyramids.

 

 

31:18

The deepest core has snow that fell on a day when early humans were painting their world 180,000 years ago.

 

 

31:29

Unlike the world that most of us inhabit, Antarctica has remained locked in ice for millions of years.  Life here is not “on ice” but rather its concentrated onto the few ice free areas like Cape Royds.

 

 

31:46

The Adelie penguins have a special relationship with the volcano on which they nest.

 

 

31:57

By mid summer most are already incubating their eggs which sit in stony nests off the perma-frost.

 

 

32:10

Stones are rare and very important to an Adelie Penguin.   Nest stones of the right size are either brought into the colony from further afield or stolen from another nest.

 

 

32:28

Homecoming birds seal their pair bond with the ritual gift of a Mount Erebus stone.

 

 

32:36

Perhaps stones are objects of desire, for Adelies.

 

 

32:40

An experiment has shown that marked stones from one nest found their way to nest throughout the colony within just a few days – such is the speed of home building on this desolate piece of rock.

 

 

32:58

Cape Royds remains ice free because it is windy and exposed.  Adelie penguins here must breed quickly before the blizzards of autumn obliterate their nests.

 

 

33:17

On the way to Mount Erebus we encounter yet another type of solid water.  The ice which covers fresh water lakes and melts during the brief summer.

 

 

33:45

The effect of ice melt on the community that lives in these lakes is dramatic.

 

 

33:50

Having been ‘freeze dried’ in autumn and lifeless over winter, microscopic animals begin to take in water and come to life.

 

 

34:09

These Rotifers – named for their whirling ring of feeding hairs that gather even smaller prey from the melt water.

 

 

34:19

Other creatures of the lakes include Tardigrades or water bears.  They graze the algae which also bloom in the brief summer of plenty.

 

 

34:31

The lakes are home to virtually all Antarctica’s permanent animals.  None of them bigger than a pinhead.

 

 

34:44

On land there’s very little life, the most obvious, certainly the most colourful, are lichens.

 

 

34:54

Some lichens may be 2,000 years old.  They can survive anything that Antarctica can throw at them summer or winter.

 

 

35:11

In 1908 it took Shackletons team two days to reach the summit plateau of Erebus and that’s two days most modern scientific parties don’t have to spare.

 

 

35:31

Our route to the plateau follows Fang Ridge – a remnant crater that runs up beside the glacier where we’ll make a compulsory stop.

 

 

35:44

All who visit the top of the volcano must spend a few days here to acclimatise.

 

 

35:52

3000 metres altitude in Antarctica is like 4000 metres elsewhere because the spinning planet pulls air from the poles toward the equator.

 

 

36:03

This makes the Antarctic atmosphere thin – and low in oxygen.

 

 

36:24

The strike rate of good weather to bad on Mount Erebus is about one day in five, so days spent walking on the Fang Glacier in the sun can feel like time wasted.

 

 

36:38

The human body needs time to adjust to altitude. To hurry to the top could lead to headaches, nausea, even death.

 

 

37:04

The thin air demands that machinery too must be acclimatised.

 

 

37:18

The volcano was first observed in 1841 by James Clark Ross and his crew aboard the ship ‘Erebus’.  They reported it “in a high state of activity belching flame and smoke”.  It seems quiet now.

 

 

37:45

Below the elements are beginning to stir.

 

 

37:50

It’s as if the sea ice is breaking up and crashing into the mountain.

 

 

38:03

The height of Mount Erebus makes it a barrier to wind and therefore a creator of its own weather.

 

 

38:39

It catches powerful, catabatic winds that hurl out from the Antarctic continent and focuses them into screaming blizzards.

 

 

38:55

This is no time to be out on the mountain.

 

 

39:04

Above the blizzard a perfect standing wave cloud of frozen water vapour.

 

 

39:28

Though blizzards are common on Erebus it hardly ever snows here.  These snows have blown all the way across the sea ice from the continent itself.

 

 

39:53

Solid rock and solid water collides as the mountain capture the storm.

 

 

40:11

What has put Erebus in the path of the Antarctic winds?  Why here, when the world’s other volcanic zones are today far from Antarctica?

 

 

40:32

A clue is found 200 kilometres away where the Trans Antarctic Mountains divide the eastern and western halves of the continent.  Uplifted by the spreading Ross Sea they have known their own volcanoes in the distant past.

 

 

40:47

Those are long dead but the heat is still here on Ross Island.

 

 

40:53

This is one of the most inhospitable places on earth for plants to grow…

 

 

41:01

Yet here where the heart of the mountain warms the ground to 60 degrees Celsius, they do grow.

 

 

41:09

Scientists are still working to discover how plants can survive for half their year in darkness and how they ever came to be here.  This blue green alga is found near hot springs the world over.  How did it get all the way to the world’s most isolated active volcano?

 

 

41:33

Closer to the summit a ridge of ice towers marks where steam is being vented from the mountain.

 

 

41:45

As steam meets fiercely cold air it instantly condenses into chimneys of solid water.

 

 

42:01

Those that grow too tall are cut down by the wind.  Their broken columns reveal the entrance ways to a stunning underworld of ice.

 

 

42:17

While temperatures outside may be minus 30 degrees Celsius, inside they can reach a cosy plus 40.

 

 

42:39

Exploration of the caves reveals yet another manifestation of solid water.

 

 

42:47

Ice is constantly being melted by steam and refrozen in different parts of the cave.  Near the source of the steam the caves are broad and smooth.

 

 

43:02

But in cooler places the sorcery of ice creates miniature worlds of crystal magic.

 

 

43:38

Virtually everything we have seen on our ascent owes its existence to the 20,000 trillion tonnes of erupted rock that is Erebus.

 

 

43:50

Why has it happened here?  The most likely scenario is that Erebus is a product of the widening of the Ross Sea as the Earth’s crust is stretched by an up-welling plume of heat.

 

 

44:05

Because of this plume, molten magma collects in chambers a few kilometres down but the chambers may be replenished from perhaps 600 kilometres below that.

 

 

44:22

The 200 metre climb to the crater rim becomes an exhausting slog in the rarefied air.

 

 

44:29

The ultimate explanation of the source of fire in Erebus can only come from the liquid rock itself.

 

 

44:38

The final stage of our journey will be as challenging as that of PHANTOM’S to the base of the volcano.

 

 

44:48

The summit is on the edge of the crater 3790 metres above the sea ice, but it’s not journey’s end.

 

 

45:02

Our destination is the lake of lava 200 metres below.

 

 

45:17

Erebus extends a cautionary welcome to Hell.

 

 

45;23

Explosions and flying lava bombs are common hazards up here.

 

 

45:33

Erebus also belches out over 200 tonnes of choking sulphur dioxide gas every day.

 

 

45:45

The journey down to the lava lake has previously been attempted on two occasions – both unsuccessful.

 

 

46:03

No climbing equipment can protect against a volcano’s fury.

 

 

46:15

Faced with the brooding temper of Erebus we’re exposed and vulnerable…

 

 

46:20

Its mood is impossible to predict.

 

 

46:25

To reach the lava lake it’s necessary to descend both an outer and an inner crater.  The outer involves an 80 metre drop, then a traverse across 100 metres of solidified lava and crevasses before descending a further 120 metres to the lake.

 

 

46:49

A previous attempt was made by two scientists from New Zealand on Christmas Eve 1977.   Their purpose was to sample gases from as close to the lava as possible.

 

 

47:13

The lake expels gases trapped in the Earth’s interior since the formation of the planet.

 

 

47:21

Samples from close to the surface could throw new light on the origins of Erebus and possibly of the earth itself.

 

 

47:42

It took one and a half hours to lower the scientist Werner Giggenbach to a point within the inner crater amid a zone of roaring fumaroles just 10 metres above the boiling lake.

 

 

47:56

But that was as far as he got.

 

 

48:02

All at once eruptions began to hurl lava bombs into the air and against the inner crater wall.  Apprehensive of his ropes burning through, Giggenbach returned from hell with his life in tact but with his clothing singed and torn.

 

 

48:20

This expedition failed to capture a fragment of the giants breath.  Erebus has repelled an attempt to comprehend its underworld.

 

 

48:34

Today Erebus is no more predictable…

 

 

48:51

To explore its heart requires courage, skill and luck.

 

 

49:12

The rocks inside the crater are coated not only with ice but with salts of sulphur as they react with the copious clouds of gas.

 

 

49:23

The floor at the bottom of the outer crater is a minefield of vents and fumaroles.

 

 

49:33

Suddenly the angry giant is awake again warning us to come no further.

 

 

49:58

Stopped so close to our goal – for daring to pry into its secrets.

 

 

50:06

But we will try once more.  This time we join Dante an unmanned vehicle ultimately destined for exploration of the planet Mars.  It’s to be tested here in this unearthly place.

 

 

50:22

It’s slow spider walk down the crater wall is monitored via satellite by NASA scientists in the United States.

 

 

50:30

Dante responds to commands issued from many thousands of kilometres away.

 

 

50:41

But after some progress a vital communication link is severed. Again failure.

 

 

50:50

Perhaps Erebus will never allow intrusion. Remote camera peering over the edge of the crater have revealed why.

 

 

51:21

Yet while Erebus holds fast too many secrets its known that within the boiling magma in the neck of the volcano, silica and metals combine in a process which mirrors the formation of ice in the sea 3,000 metres below.

 

 

51:40

And when the bombs of thick lava explode and splatter over the mountain they reveal their crystals.

 

 

51:50

As ice is a pure crystal from the sea so these rock crystals 10 centimetres long are from a molten lake.  Nowhere else in the world is Feldspar like this to be found as such large crystals.

 

 

52:10

Ice quickly covers the cooling bombs.

 

 

52:18

Creeping ice crystals cover everything in Antarctica.

 

 

52:32

Our incredible journey began and ends with ice.

 

 

52:41

All the way to the top of Erebus we have been confronted by its mysteries and have marvelled at its magic.

 

 

52:51

There is even magic in its gas plume.  Gold.  One of the few volcanoes on earth to offer such an unexpected treasure.

 

 

53:02

There have been many treasures and rewards in coming from solid water to liquid rock. But the real reward is greater knowledge.  It’s there to be claimed all the way from below the glacial tongue to this remote window on the centre of the earth.  Through it Mount Erebus may one day offer us a much clearer view of our planets origins.

 

 

53:49

Credits start

 

 

54:19

Credits finish

 

 

 


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