A study of early winter first-year sea ice conditions and development in the western Ross Sea in May and June 1995 included measurements of snow and ice thickness, freeboard, ice core structure and stable isotopic composition. These variables showed strong spatial variability between the Ross Ice Shelf and the ice edge 1400 km to the north, and indicate that the development of the Ross Sea pack ice is quite different from that observed in other Antarctic sea ice zones. The thinnest snow and ice occurred in a 200 km wide coastal zone. The thickest snow and ice were observed in a continental shelf zone 200–600 km from the coast where the average ice thickness (0.8 m) determined by drilling is as thick as first-year sea ice later in winter elsewhere in Antarctica. A zone of moderate snow and ice thickness occurred on the deep ocean from 600 km to the ice edge at 1400 km. Thermodynamic thickening of the ice in the inner pack ice, <800 km from the coast, was dominated by congelation ice growth, which occurred in a greater amount (65%) and in thicker layers (mean: 20 cm) than was observed in the outer pack ice >800 km from the coast (amount: 22%; mean layer thickness: 12 cm) and elsewhere in the Antarctic pack ice. The preponderance of congelation ice in the inner pack ice might be due to a low oceanic heat flux on the Ross Sea continental shelf, and a colder, less stormy environment which favours the more frequent and prolonged calm conditions necessary for significant congelation ice growth. In the outer pack ice, thermodynamic thickening occurred mainly by snow ice formation (mean layer thickness: 20 cm) while dynamic processes, i.e., rafting and ridging, caused the thickening of frazil ice and columnar ice (mean layer thickness: 14 cm and 12 cm respectively). A greater amount of snow ice (37%) occurred in the outer pack ice than in the inner pack ice (15%), and both values indicate that in the Ross Sea, unlike other Antarctic sea ice zones, there can be significant seawater flooding of the snow/ice interface and snow ice formation before midwinter.