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A Soul-Stirring Journey Through Antarctica’s Untouched Beauty During the Summer Solstice

At the culmination of 2023, the National Space Weather Monitoring and Warning Center issued a proclamation of an impending geomagnetic storm through its official public account. Numerous individuals captured the ethereal beauty of the aurora in Beijing. Conversely, on the opposite side of the globe, I once beheld a resplendent sunset: A beam of moonlight, traversing the realms explored by Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton, and myriad other Antarctic pioneers, witnessing the gradual infusion of the firmament with golden light, embellishing the snow-clad peaks and the sea inch by inch; all immersed in the intoxicating splendor of this blossoming polar night.

In November, the inception of the Antarctic summer heralds the commencement of my authentic landscape photography in Antarctica. Embarking from the northern hemisphere, traversing half the Earth’s expanse, I entered this enchanting “frozen planet,” the singular continent devoid of human habitation. Secluded and enigmatic, it stands as both an attraction and a trial for voyagers and photographers alike. Fortuitously, the temperatures in the Antarctic Peninsula and sub-Antarctic regions hover around freezing during this period. Contrasted with the winter in Beijing, it could be deemed “temperate.”

During my initial sojourn to the Antarctic Peninsula, the captivating dusk in the Drake Passage, the pristine snow-clad peaks in Port Nack, the endearing penguins in Paradise Bay… a plethora of beautiful sights etched indelibly in the annals of memory. Most poignant is the sensation of floating upon the unbridled sea, encircled by crystal-clear ice floes within arm’s reach, basking in unrestrained sunlight akin to being ensconced in a colossal crystal palace. Nature’s endowment evokes profound gratitude. Across inaugural and subsequent polar expeditions, the exquisite twilight at the terminus of the world imparts an almost surreal impression.

The Lemaire Strait, flanked by precipitous and regal cliffs, occasionally reveals the spectacle of seals and whales gracefully navigating the ocean. This picturesque locale is also known as the “Koda kGap.” Coordinates: 65°04’S 63°57’W

On Earth, as long as two individuals, situated disparately, persistently journey due south along the longitude, they shall inevitably converge at a singular point—the South Pole. The world’s southernmost “seventh continent” — Antarctica, spans 14 million square kilometers, comprising about 9.4% of the world’s landmass, exceeding China’s area by 1.45 times and equivalent to the combined expanse of the United States and Mexico. A staggering 98% of the entire continent is shrouded in ice and snow, with West Antarctica representing the coldest region globally. The absolute nadir of temperature plummets to -89.2°C, currently the recorded lowest temperature worldwide. The aggregate volume of ice enshrouding the Antarctic surface approximates over 28 million cubic kilometers, constituting approximately 96% of the world’s total fresh water—a colossal freshwater reservoir. Nonetheless, it paradoxically stands as the driest continent, renowned as the “White Desert,” with a mere 30-50 mm of average annual precipitation. The further inland one ventures, the more meager the precipitation, dwindling to a mere 3 mm near the South Pole. These harsh climatic conditions render it conspicuously unsuitable for human habitation, thus fortuitously preserving its status as the last pristine haven on Earth.

The majority of this glacial realm remains desolate until the advent of spring. Even in the warmest days of summer, less than 3% of Antarctica escapes the clutches of ice, and all exposed rock consolidates in a singular location—the Antarctic Peninsula. Resembling a raised thumb, this peninsula seemingly cradles the entire world and harbors the most biodiversity in Antarctica.

This ultimate Eden on Earth is the coveted dream of many. The Lemaire Strait is acknowledged as one of the most awe-inspiring channels in Antarctica and serves as a mandatory passage for nearly all commercial cruise ships navigating the Antarctic Peninsula. On a crystalline moonlit night, prior to the commencement of the polar day in Antarctica, as the clock strikes 9 in the evening, the luminosity gradually transforms. Informed by the captain’s announcement that we have entered the Panola Channel, everyone congregates on the deck to savor the panorama. The 10-kilometer stretch on either side of the strait unfolds in breathtaking beauty. The renowned “Three Sisters Mountains” stand shrouded in white clouds, and the placid water mirrors the spectacle like an untouched canvas. It is an unparalleled beauty, untainted by worldly affairs.

The vessel gracefully navigates the Lemaire Strait, its narrowest point measuring a mere 1.6 kilometers. As the colossal cruise ship glides through, it feels as if Mount Tai is imposing its weight upon the vessel. The brisk air rushes against the countenance, and the snow-clad mountains on either side appear to draw near. As the illumination wanes and warms, the glacial landscape begins its metamorphosis.

Estado Island serves as a breeding ground for penguins, and observers can witness these charismatic birds leaping into the sea from cruising boats.

Nearly all passengers congregate on the deck, securing vantage points, prepared to relish a cinematic spectacle. A picturesque tableau unfolds gradually: scattered ice dots on the sea, illuminated by the sun with resplendence and brilliance, transmuting the ice into a gilded spectacle; the snow-clad mountains resemble a confectionery masterpiece. In the heavens above, a full moon ascends inconspicuously. The grandeur, enigma, primal allure, and a touch of peculiarity characteristic of polar realms manifest in this singular moment.

“This is the most exquisite sunset I have witnessed during my voyages in Antarctica over the past few years,” I overheard the person beside me exclaim. It was an aged expedition member, his usual stoicism momentarily eclipsed by the breathtaking scene. For these expedition members who toil year-round in Antarctica, aside from landings, they are typically engrossed in cabin duties or sequestered in their quarters. Rarely do they partake in the deck’s scenic delights with the same enthusiasm as first-time Antarctic visitors. However, this occasion was an exception. Virtually everyone congregated on the deck, their elation mirroring that of neophyte tourists arriving in Antarctica. In proximity to the poles, owing to the Earth’s axial tilt, the sun ascends and descends at acute angles from the horizon, resulting in protracted sunrises and sunsets, along with day-night cycles extending for days, if not longer.

Sailing on this waterway was a sublime delight for the senses. It endured for a duration of 2 hours. Only when the final ray of light vanished did I become aware that the finger pressing the shutter had turned numb. With no time to change my footwear, I hurriedly departed wearing slippers. At present, my extremities are frigid, yet I still have more to express.

Traversing the Ice Floe “Crystal Palace”

The subsequent day, we were obliged to return from the Lemaire Strait once again, and the weather was equally favorable. I, along with more than 20 other fortunate companions, were chosen by a lottery to embark on a Zodiac vessel through the strait. Our six diminutive boats trailed behind the “mother duck” – the cruise ship resembling little ducklings. Upon the sea, the Zodiac boat emitted an intermittent “creeping” sound as it navigated through the ice floes. Due to the increasing temperature, there was not an abundance of ice when we passed through the strait the previous night. Overnight, the entire channel became blanketed in shattered ice. We voyaged through the ice, and expeditiously found ourselves enclosed by ice blocks.

Soon, the expedition team espied a whale surfacing nearby. It was a placid minke whale. Occasionally, its back would emerge, and it would glide around the boat for a brief period before vanishing. The surroundings were exceedingly tranquil, the water devoid of any wind, allowing for the reflection of the lofty, precipitous mountains on either side to be distinctly visible. Gazing up at these mountains, it has been said that their highest peak surpasses 1,000 meters, an anomaly in Antarctica.

Traversing the “Crystal Palace” constructed of ice floes, I finally beheld the most primordial side of the earth. The “civilized world” from which we originated has been altered by humanity to the point where its true essence can no longer be discerned. Antarctica is perhaps the last remaining “Garden of Eden” on our planet. Despite the ubiquity of human civilization’s imprint across most regions, Antarctica has remained unaltered for millennia. In this moment, all the order and hierarchy established in civilized society are diluted by the pallid snow.

The 10,000-year chronicle of human civilization is a mere droplet in the vast ocean of the earth’s 4.5 billion-year existence. The sanctity of life and the magnificence of nature can be discovered in Antarctica. With profound reverence, I pay homage to the creation of heaven and earth, relinquish my own arrogance and vanity, infuse the pulse of life into imagery, and manifest the spirit’s essence in text. I enter a realm untouched by human transformation, where all societal constructs and hierarchies are diluted by the pallid snow. Antarctica, with its crystalline clarity and unblemished purity, has unveiled to me the true nature of our planet.

As a photographer, I employ my lens to document the awe-inspiring beauty of this immaculate land, which also happens to be the most delicate ecosystem on Earth. My sole desire is to preserve this moment, from the resonance of sound to the sight before me, until it melds into the depths of my heart. Journeying to Antarctica feels more akin to a spiritual odyssey in my life.

·Lemaire Channel·(Lemaire Channel)

This narrow waterway spans 11 kilometers in length and a mere 1,600 meters in width, separating Booth Island from the Antarctic continent. Unearthed by German explorer Dallmann in 1873, this passage was initially traversed by a Belgian expedition in 1898 and subsequently christened after Belgian explorer Charles Lemaire (1863-1925). It stands as an idyllic location for observing seals and whales.

·Geomagnetic storm·

A geomagnetic storm denotes a global tumultuous disruption of the Earth’s magnetic field. Serving as the archetypal solar eruption, a coronal mass ejection has the capacity to propel hundreds of millions of tons of solar material away from the sun’s surface at velocities reaching hundreds of kilometers per second, thereby forming an explosion-like shock wave that reverberates throughout the entire solar system. The accumulation of immense mass and velocity engenders substantial kinetic energy, which, combined with the potent magnetic field energy inherent to the sun, causes alterations in the direction and magnitude of the Earth’s magnetic field upon impact. When these alterations reach a significant magnitude, a geomagnetic storm ensues. This process is prone to generating intense and resplendent auroras.