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|THE BEAGLE CHANNEL - WITH DARWIN
(AND HOW TO CONTROL A SHIP IN A TIGHT SPACE)
|PICTURE AT THE TOP OF THE PAGE: That is Romanche Glacier, one of the glaciers on a sort of "glacier
row" in the Beagle Channel in South America on the very foggy afternoon of January 18, 2009. The channel
is named after the "Beagle" (of course), the ship on which Charles Darwin sailed around the world between
1831 and 1836. At the time he had no idea that all of the observations he was making and the samples he
was sending back to England were going to lead to his big breakthrough on evolution, but that is just what
happened. During his passage through this channel, he saw and described these glaciers, which are located
-- on an east to west trip -- just after the channel divides into a northern and a southern branch. See the
map below, and click it for a larger version.
This map, obviously not Antarctica, does, however show the location of
several glaciers along the Beagle Channel which are pictured on this page.
The map is from the Wikimedia Commons and is distributed under the GNU
Free Documentation License. Go to those links for more information, but
you can pretty much do anything with it. If it is too small to read, click it.
The beagle Channel is almost as far south as you can get and still be in
When going from east to west - away from Ushuaia, Argentina,
and after you pass that division of the Beagle Channel into a
north branch and a south branch, the first Glacier you come to
is the one to the left. It is called Holanda Glacier. If you
read Darwin's "The Voyage of the Beagle", you will find that he
was very impressed with the scenery just after that division of
the channels (it is in Chapter 10). He sounded even more
impressed than I was, and I was impressed.
I am always looking for signs of global warming including
evidence that glaciers are shrinking. However, it was hard to
see the lower end of this one. But see more about that below.
(By the way, sorry about all the fog in those pictures, but it
was that kind of day.)
Then you come to the one just above: Italia Glacier - three pictures in order as we pass with it on our
right. Take a look, especially at the enlarged versions that you get by clicking these pictures, and you can
see that there is a little channel leading up to this one. I can't help wondering if it used to fill up this
channel. Also, it seems to have retreated up the hill and left some bare ground, but you can't tell when
from one set of pictures.
I searched a couple of glacier databases, and did a lot of "googling" but have not found any systematic
studies of any of these particular glaciers. Here are a number of tourist pictures of Italia Glacier that
suggest it was longer a few years ago but it may also be alternately becoming longer and shorter.
From Feb 14, 2007 -- almost 2 years before my pictures.
From April, 2006. It is not quite half way down a long page just below a picture of Amalia Glacier. Though
identified only as a Glacier on the Beagle Channel, it is clearly Italia Glacier (comparing the surrounding
rocks). And it looks longer than the 2009 version.
From Jan 27,2005 --also not identified but is clearly a longer version of Italia Glacier.
And Dec 29, 2004. It is clearly filling up more of the channel in front of it. (This site shows you an ad.)
But in this group of pictures dated Jan 28, 1994, it looks shorter than the 2004 - 2007 pictures and has
retreated up the hill again, though not quite as far up as in 2009. So, if that date is correct, it may have
been alternately advancing and retreating recently. I have not found any other pictures before Dec, 2004.
This glacier, longer than the others I saw, might be subject to surging. A surge is a temporary motion of a
glacier or part of one up to around ten times faster than normal. Surges depend on the interaction between
a glacier and the ground below it, probably involving lubrication by meltwater trickling to the bottom and
spreading out. I don't know if this glacier does that, but it would explain the lengthening.
There were several others in this channel way up the
mountain with a lot of bare ground in front of them. Such a
circumstance is usually a sign that a glacier used to cover the
For example, check this one out. As with everything in this
channel, I only saw it once, so I don't have any timeline
about when it might have covered more ground. Also, I have
not been able to find any older pictures of this one, except
for very recent ones that look the same as mine.
This was not one of the named glaciers on my map, all of
which were on the north side of the channel. I lined up all
of my pictures of it in order, and I found that the closer
features moved from right to left with respect to the more
distant ones. That means it was on our left side as we
moved toward the west. So it was on the south side of the
channel. The only one on my map on the south side is not
named, at least on the map.
TOP (TO THE RIGHT): We are leaving Ushuaia, Argentina to head
down the Beagle Channel, which required a long graceful turn.
CENTER (TO THE RIGHT): In the Beagle Channel.
HOW TO CONTROL A MODERN SHIP
(This also appears in Gallery 11)
Look closely. Does the ship's wake look the same in both pictures?
In fact that is a half a wake in the top picture. Like many modern
ships, each of the Amsterdam's propellers is located in its own
rotating pod called an "Azipod", which also contains the electric
motors. The pods can be rotated to turn the ship, which doesn't
even have a rudder. Together with the side thrusters, this gives
better control. Only one of the 2 azipods is lined up,with the ship
during the turn, and the other is pointed to the side. So we only
see the wake generated by one of them. See demos after the 3
minute mark in this promotional video.
I got some better pictures of side thrusters on a previous trip to
Alaska. LOWER RIGHT: A thruster on the Holland-America ship,
the Statendam, throws water to the side near Skagway. BELOW:
A row of pictures of the Statendam rotating under the action of
these thrusters at Seward, Alaska. A Photograph. A Video
Demonstration on a smaller boat. On a big oil rig.
Now, while we are at it, we might as well look at a couple of mountain sides without large glaciers. Those are
probably small glaciers way up there on the left-hand picture with cascades of meltwater coming down to the
Just across the channel from the above glacier is Francia Glacier, which is also high up the side of the
mountain with much bare ground in front. There it is below - three views - in order from left to right
- as we move past it, Notice the foreground objects moving left to right relative to the more distant
objects indicating that it was to the right of us - on the north side of the channel.
And here to the left is one more look at Francia Glacier, this time looking
back on it from down the channel to the west. As with the others, there
is plenty of bare rock suggesting that the glacier used to be much bigger
but with no definite timeline. And old tourist pictures seem to be lacking
although I found many pictures of Italia Glacier that claimed to be of
Some sources do have Francia and Italia Glaciers reversed from my order
here and in my map above. I have checked the order of the glaciers in
my whole group of pictures with the order of them in a map I have from
Zagier & Urruty Publications in Buenos Aires. If Z, U, and I are wrong,
then maybe the names Francia and Italia should be reversed.
On the right, there is something
you generally see with glaciers.
Dirty water. Glaciers pick up lots
of rocky dirt from the sides and
bottoms of their paths, and this
dirt is eventually deposited at the
terminus. If that is in water, you
get dirty water often with a sharp
boundary between the dirty and
clean parts of the channel. Here
the clean part is the closest part.
After another 10 minutes - give or
take - down the channel to the
west of Francia Glacier, we came
to the rather complex looking
Alemania Glacier. Its terminus is
set well back from the channel
partly behind what looks like a low
hill. That hill is probably a
terminal moraine, or at least it
Then, just two or three minutes down the channel to the west of Alemania Glacier, there is Romanche Glacier,
pictured below. Those three pictures are also in order from left to right as we sailed past. There is also an
extreme close-up (strongly zoomed) picture of the same glacier at the top of this page. That picture was
taken after these three, after we passed the glacier and had to look past the hill on the left of these pictures
in order to see the glacier.
Now then, for an interesting early image, listen to some of how Charles Darwin described this spot. He and
some other Beagle crew members passed this way on Jan 29, 1833 (in rowboats!), and he later wrote in
Chapter 10 of his travel book, "The Voyage of the Beagle":
"The lofty mountains on the north side...are covered by a wide mantle of perpetual snow, and numerous
cascades pour their waters, through the woods, into the narrow channel below. In many parts, magnificent
glaciers extend from the mountain side to the water's edge. It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more
beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead-white of the upper
expanse of snow."
He also described many icebergs, composed of pieces fallen from the glaciers, littering the channel for about
a mile, and he witnessed, from a dangerously close range, some pieces calving (breaking and falling) from the
Although still a magnificent sight with snow and many cascades, many of those mountains were bare on top
and only Italia Glacier (of the ones I saw) came close to the water's edge on Jan 18, 2009. We saw no
icebergs at this location, at least at this time.. Darwin did describe finding a moraine at the foot of one
glacier (Alemania???), in his words, "...heaped up at a period when the glacier had greater dimensions."
So it seems that glaciers at this site have been losing mass for a long time with only a little bit of recent
loss. Otherwise it is pretty hard to pin down a precise timeline.
looks like one. The lower picture on the right is a shamelessly enhanced
zoom on the possible moraine from the upper right picture. A terminal
moraine is a place where the glacier drops its load of dirt and rocks at
the terminus (front) where the glacier peters out (see just above). That suggests that this one used to be
longer. From the bare walls at the sides, it also used to be thicker to fill up the valley that much. I made
that awful color enhancement to see what the moraine looks like, and it seems to be full of vegetation, which
I couldn't see very well in the fog (left pic). So I suspect the glacier's retreat from it wasn't recent.
I couldn't find any other pictures of Alemania Glacier more than a few years old, but here are a couple
from Flickr, one from Jan 2, 2006, and the other from Feb 16, 2005. They are from a different angle
making comparisons difficult, but the ice might be heaped up around those central protruding rocks a little
more than in my pictures.
That waterfall is the interesting feature here, presumably more meltwater that has trickled to the bottom
of the glacier. Such water wouldn't cause a surge unless it is spread out just right. There are many
pictures of it on the internet. This 3-minute YouTube video has some good shots of this waterfall and also
of Alemania Glacier (although the close-ups and quick cutting make other glaciers hard to identify). That
video, taken about 16 months before my pictures, shows the glacier to be about the same except for a
lobe of ice on the right that had disappeared by 2009. This great Jan 13, 2008 picture also shows it.
Though identified as "International Glacier" it is clearly Romanche. But the lobe is kind of fickle. You
don't see it in this March 2, 2007 photo. It is back in a picture from either Dec, 2004 or Jan, 2005.
All in all, though, this glacier has not changed much in any of these pictures. As it happens, there is a
picture of Romanche Glacier from the mid-1920's on a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA) Photo Library site. Then, interestingly, it was still about the same on the left side
but had lots more ice on the right side. Although it lost quite a bit since the 1920's, it also lost quite a
bit sometime before that.