To say that the Ross Ice Shelf is large would be an understatement. In fact, this largest ice shelf in Antarctica is approximately the size of France! Unlike France, the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica is a floating ice sheet, and it certainly doesn't boast any good vineyards. While the ice on this shelf can range from 300 to 6,000 feet thick, it only manages to rise anywhere from 50 to 500 feet above sea level. That's because 90 percent of the floating ice that makes up the Ross Ice Shelf is below the surface of the Ross Sea. The cliffs at the water's edge average a height of 200 feet, and they are stunning to look at from the decks of a cruise ship.
Like the Ross Sea and Ross Island, the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica was named after a British captain by the name of James Clark Ross. Ross led an expedition into Antarctica between 1839 and 1843. His party was comprised of two ships, which were named the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus. From the decks of these ships, Ross and his men charted the bulk of Antarctica's coastline. Many early Antarctic explorers who had hopes of reaching the South Pole used the Ross Ice Shelf as a starting area, so it's long been recognized. Like the other ice shelves on Antarctica's edge, this mass of frozen water was formed by glaciers. These glaciers continue to feed the ice shelves as they move toward the open sea. It's fascinating to note that the ice shelves in Antarctica essentially serve as brakes for the glaciers that feed them, moderating the speed of these downhill-moving ice masses.
Should you be lucky enough to cruise along the largest ice shelf in Antarctica, you might get treated to a special natural occurrence. Chunks of the Ross Ice Shelf break away from the larger mass with relative regularity. The process is known as calving, and it is quiet a sight to see. The largest known ice chunk to calve from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica covered 12,000 square miles, making it larger than the country of Belgium! As for the largest recorded iceberg in the world, it essentially calved from this sizable ice chunk. Referred to as B-15, this iceberg was larger than the island of Jamaica before it broke up into smaller pieces. While the breakup of B-15 happened years ago, some of the chunks that came from it are still floating in the South Seas. A number of these chunks were even spotted off the coast of New Zealand in 2006 after being carried there by ocean currents.
For decades now, scientists have been intrigued by the Ross Shelf in Antarctica, and in recent years, some tourists have started taking interest in this massive ice chunk. The McMurdo Station, which is the largest community and research station on the continent, has sponsored some of the scientific teams that have come to study the shelf's composition. While some scientists focus more on the glaciers that feed the largest ice shelf in Antarctica, others pay attention to the shelf itself, which boasts a series of valleys. One could hardly imagine a more unique place to do some trekking.
Some of the cruise ships that visit the Ross Ice Shelf and the McMurdo Sound area allow passengers to go ashore on special crafts, which is something that is bound to please. Even if you don't leave the ship while visiting the largest ice shelf in Antarctica, you will be able to admire its composition and breadth. As a side note, if you don't get to see ice chunks calving from the Ross Ice Shelf on your visit, you might look to head over to Paradise Harbor. It's one of the best places in Antarctica for catching this dramatic, natural phenomenon. If you have the funds, booking a private expedition that includes destinations such as the Ross Ice Shelf and Paradise Harbor is the way to go.