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McMurdo Station, Antarctica

Erebus Ice Tongue Caves

Southern Ocean waters and glacial forces transform the Antarctic ice into these stunning bridges and caves. 

Living in Antarctica? Tired of the ice-core-collecting grind? Then head on over to the Erebus Ice Tongue, where you can see some of the most spectacular ice formations on Earth.

An ice tongue is a unique glacial formation created by an ice stream that flows faster than the surrounding ice and thus pushes out to sea ahead of the glacier’s edge. Moreover, this activity needs to take place in a protected harbor so that the ice tongue remains intact, rather than being broken up by strong currents or collisions with icebergs.

It’s a fairly specific formula, and it can be found on the west coast of Ross Island, where Mt. Erebus — the world’s southernmost active volcano — feeds a valley glacier that flows ahead of the surrounding ice into a protected portion of McMurdo Sound. The resulting Erebus Ice Tongue is a slender peninsula protruding 11 kilometers from the coastline, where waves, tidal activity and internal stresses carve the glacier into these stunning ice caves.

The strange serrated bird’s-eye appearance of the ice tongue gives some hint about the intricacy of the forces at work. Small holes on the surface of the ice open up into soaring, majestic spaces within the glacier’s interior. The flowing shapes and elaborate features — including “ice stalactites”, hanging ice bridges, and intricate, unusually large crystalline structures — are illuminated by a diffuse blue light filtering in from the cold Antarctic sun.

The caves are a popular attraction for the residents of nearby research bases McMurdo Station and Scott Base, who come to marvel at the cold, quiet beauty of the place. Additionally, Weddell seals have been observed visiting the underwater caves of Erebus Ice Tongue — less to take pictures, more to avoid getting devoured by orcas and leopard seals. When visiting, humans are asked to please not pee in the ice caves; seals, being beyond the reach of human rules, can do whatever they like.

Know Before You Go

Located inside the Erebus Ice Tongue, the ice caves are a protected place and can only be visited from McMurdo Station when accompanied by US Antarctic Program mountaineers. Getting there requires travel across the sea ice from McMurdo, so the site is only accessible for brief periods each year.

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