In Antarctica, Wilkins Ice Shelf to break up: a victim of warming

January 20, 2009

You have to feel sorry for Australian aviator George Hubert Wilkins, one of the pioneers of flying in Antarctica who lived from 1888 to 1958 — and whose name is commemorated in an Antarctic Ice Shelf that is about to vanish into the ocean.

We landed near the narrowest point of the Wilkins Ice Shelf in a plane with a group of scientists from the British Antarctic Survey — who reckoned it was the first time anyone had visited within tens of kilometres (miles).

And it will probably be the last visit since the shelf is poised to collapse into the sea (for a story, click here).

Canadian pilot Steve King skimmed the Twin Otter plane in low over the ice and let the skis on the undercarriage slide over to test the surface for crevasses without committing to landing. We then swooped around and landed on the slushy ice — it’s scary enough landing on a runway in a small plane; here there was nothing but trackless white.

Glaciologist David Vaughan (pictured above) reckons the breakup could be days, weeks or months away — it is connected to Antarctica by a strip of ice that is just 500 metres wide at the narrowest point — in 1950 it was almost 100 kms wide. We landed a few km away from the narrowest point (shown in the picture on the right — the ice cliff at the front is about 20 metres high).

My colleague Stuart Mc Dill from Reuters TV and I then watched with alarm as Vaughan forced a long metal pole deep into the ice to set up a GPS monitoring device. ‘Um, David, are you sure that’s a good idea?’

Steve expertly got us off safely.

Wilkins is one of 10 ice shelves around the Antarctic Peninsula that have been retreating because of global warming — sediments beneath the glaciers show that the region has not been ice free for 10,000 years.

So goodbye Wilkins Ice Shelf — hello Wilkins Bay?


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

The article failed to mention that overall the ice coverage has expanded in the antartic in the past year and that temperatures have been as much as 8 degrees F below average. Seems like selective reporting in order to promote the global warming agenda.

Posted by James Shepherd | Report as abusive

Right, James, because one year with lower temperatures invalidates a decades-long trend. Fool.

Posted by JML | Report as abusive

Definitly throws a wrench into the overall theory though doesn’t it. Especially considering that it is just a THEORY. Who knows maybe its the beginning of another “decades long trend”.

Posted by Dan | Report as abusive

One off data point does not throw a wrench into anything. You need a series of data points that go outside the error margins (say 95% margins) to say that the data is inconsistent with the theory. Until then, it is in fact true, the data is consistent with the theory, no wrenches.

Posted by Brian | Report as abusive

The problem with these uneducated laymen is they think the term “theory” means the same in laymen’s terms as it does in scientific terms. Haven’t we had enough of scientific illiterates setting our national policies regarding important and critical matters to the entire planet? Ignorance is something to be combatted, not boasted of. But tell that to Rush.

Posted by jimbo | Report as abusive

The temperatures have been falling for the last 10 years or longer. JML get the fool part right!!!!

Posted by Jeff | Report as abusive

Anyone that believes the atmosphere is still as stable as it was a thousand years ago need to go back to Science 101

Posted by the fuse | Report as abusive

The article mentions that the ice sheet has been getting smaller since 1950, and in fact it can be inferred from the article that the antarctic has been getting warmer for 10,000 years, since the end of the last ice age.

The peninsula may indeed be warming, but there is nothing in the article that compels one to ascribe the warming to humans.

Posted by Greg Staff | Report as abusive

Hi, Jeff,

Here’s a link to a thermal trend graph that shows most of Antarctica has experienced average temperature increases since the early 1980’s. What decade were you talking about? ew.php?id=8239

Bear in mind that climate changes might mean that some specific locations might actually experience average temperature drops as weather patterns change. Also be aware that we are concerned with long-term trends, not individual weather events; a single 60 degree day in Chiago in January no more proves Global Warming than a single 60 degree day in Chicago in August disproves it.

Wasn’t this covered in your home-school curriculum?

Posted by JML | Report as abusive

I’m talking since 1998 when Earth’s temperature peaked. Wasn’t that covered in your higher education. In December 650 of the top climatologists told the u.n. global warming conference in Poland that man-made global warming is a media generated myth without basis.

Checkout the article: .ssf/2009/01/its_time_to_pray_for_global _wa.html

Have a rainbow day there JML

Posted by Jeff | Report as abusive

The Antarctic Peninsula has warmed dramatically, more than 10 degrees, over the past decade. There has been no significant cooling. The warming is due primarily to changes in the large-scale wind patterns over the Southern Ocean. These large scale changes have been linked by numerical models to climate warming. There is no longer any reasonable doubt within the global community of experts, as well as the majority of the educated portion of the population, that human activities are the primary cause of the present warming. Those who contest these claims need to examine their own motives and perhaps go back to school.

Posted by Catspaw | Report as abusive

As far as the ICE goes an University of Illinois Arctic Climate Research Center released conclusive satellite photos showing that Arctic ice is back to 1979 levels. What’s more, measurements of Antarctic ice now show that its accumulation is up 5 % since 1980. This is a quote from the article I posted above.
Ya’ll have a rainbow day.

Posted by Jeff | Report as abusive


Congratulations! You quoted a Right-wing clown writing for the Flint (MI) Journal, that paragon of peer-reviewed scientific analysis. Oddly, the author of your link doesn’t actually link to any data. It looks like he cherry-picked a few items to reinforce his preconceived postition. Boy, that’ll really school people! I mean, he’s relying on the work of a whopping 650 cimatologists? Any word on whether they were bought and paid for by the petroleum industry?

But, hey, keep fighting them commies! After all, the only conceivable reason why anybody would be concerned about the environment is because they hate business and rich white people, right?

While you’re at it, maybe you can explain how increase in CO2 being released into the atmosphere coupled with deforestation (plant life having a moderating effect on CO2 levels as they take in CO2 via photosythesis (big word, I apologize), thus the fewer plants, the more CO2) has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the atmospheric greenhous effects.

I look forward to your enlightening analysis.

Posted by JML | Report as abusive


The Arctic ice is NOT back to 1979 levels, according to the U of Illinois or anyone else.

You can see visually right here:  / 20&sy=2009

And their main site is here:

You’ll be much smarter if you don’t quote right-wing hackflacks when the actual source is right there for you to see for yourself.

Posted by Trebuchet | Report as abusive

“sediments beneath the glaciers show that the region has not been ice free for 10,000 years.”

Whose global-climate-changing-fossil-fuel-burn ing caused the ice shelves to retreat 10,000 years past?

I want to believe, but when such statements are casually thrown in at the end like that, everybody seems to take them in stride while it completely trips me (obviously a layman) up every time. This could indeed have been hastened by human activity, but couldn’t the root cause still be a cyclic phenomena over which we actually have no control?

Posted by Notanexpert | Report as abusive

I am quite appalled by the name calling in this blog from self-proclaimed educated people who should know better. What would be nice in these blogs is a lack of personal attacks. If there is anything guaranteed to make most people ignore you it is when you ad hominem. It seems that anytime someones position is attacked it is an affront to their ego. Take the ego out of your positions gentlemen and quote the hard facts, and let people decide for themselves.

The evidence of warming is there for all to see. You only need to look at satellite pictures to see this. What is not evident is that this is caused solely by human activity or is a contributory factor to a natural trend.

As I understand it we are in an interglacial period and we should expect to see warming and therefore retreating of ice-shelves and glaciation. How much is due to natural cycles and how much is due to man is therefore anyones guess. Ice cores samples will not help you on this point because they do not show cause and effect but only data which we then try to interpret. Many people point to rises in carbon dioxide being concurrent with previous eras of retreat but it cannot distinguish which way the cause and effect has gone ie. does the extra carbon lead to retreats, or do the retreats lead to extra carbon.

The point about interested parties quoting information that supports their “agendas” happens on both sides. Scientists involved in proving human caused global warming have their own research grants to think about and those who try to disprove human caused global warming have their research grants to think about.

At the end of the day all we have is the data and it is down to people to decide whether this is caused by humans or not.

Posted by Paul | Report as abusive

Ya’ll need to listen Rush, Sean, Glenn Beck and Fox news to see this is all a big fraud. Or you can wait for the federation of light to save us.

Have a rainbow day

Posted by Jeff | Report as abusive

Wait, weren’t we talking about the ice in ANTarctica?

Posted by David | Report as abusive

think the best way to combat those who support the man made global warming theory are with the facts.

1934 was the warmest year in the US
the 1930s was the warmest decade
five of the ten warmest years were before 1940
1998 was the second warmest year and it has been
coooling since
there was an ice age when CO2 levels were ten
times what they are today
According to the National Climate Data Center
2008 US temperatures were .2 degrees above the
1900-2007 temperature average (where is the
global warming?)
Antarctica with 90% of the worlds ice, has the
most ice in 2008 ever recorded
CO2 as a percent of the atmosphere has only
increased one then thousandths, 1/10,000th
since 1750. (100ppm).

And there are a lot more fun facts on this website

Let the facts speak for themselves. The global warming alarmists main objective is to raise our taxes and give the wealth of America away to other countries (who they think are more deserving). They want to shrink our economy (with the goal of reducing man’s harm to the planet).

Alternative energy, less reliance on foreign energy sources, cleaner cars, less pollution are all worthy objectives, but controlling CO2 is not something we need to do, it is a waste of resources that will not accomplish anything.

This was a post on another website by gpp111.
I’m at work and don’t have time to research naything but work. When i’m at home I go on-line and play poker. I have found out in the past that the only research I can trust 100% is what I do myself and i’m not a scientist.

But I do like to make lefties bust a vein.

Have a rainbow day.

Posted by Jeff | Report as abusive

Anyone that thinks they or anyone else has even the smallest clue what the atmosphere was like 1000 years ago should stick to UFO websites. Yes, I know you’re subbed to several. We’re watching you.

Posted by Scienceman | Report as abusive

Pluto is warmer as well. Could the sun be the cause? Climate change is about YOU paying MORE TAX…

Posted by J West | Report as abusive

Loosing these ice sheets isn’t just sad. It is scary. Rising waters are just the beginning. With increased fresh water (which is what melted ice is), comes changes to the ocean’s currents which rely on salinity. Soon after the UK will be nearly as cold as Finland.

Just how long this will take is a matter of great speculation– perhaps another 100 years. However it is unclear whether it will be reversible by the time we start really trying to do something about it.

If you are more worried about paying taxes than rising waters, then expect the problem to just get worse. Leaving the problem to your kids is a viable option, I guess.

Posted by david bruce | Report as abusive

The Planet is cooling and this Global Warming stuff is ridiculous.

Posted by Rico | Report as abusive

How much is this going to cost to fix?… Sorry, my government already spent a lifetime of MY tax contributions on wasted efforts. Anyway you cant fix what is not broken. BTW its incredibly cold right now, a little global warming would be welcome.

Posted by Fujioko | Report as abusive

Next question: How much is it going to cost NOT to fix?

Posted by JML | Report as abusive

Does it really make much difference whether climate change is man made or not? There is warming. Fact. Now how do we deal with it. I can just see it now. 2050 and everyone is floating around Arkansas arguing whether the sea level rose and drowned their crops because of man made or natural causes.. Have fun in the future fellas.

Posted by 999theanitiantichrist | Report as abusive

Ha Ha Ha.
Climateaudit has already shot holes in this latest fraud. Talk about a last hurrah. These “scientists” really have their backs to the wall. Their paymasters are probably coming up with “Scary movie 6″ with as much scientific validity as Gores first pointless effort.
Read CAs debunking of the data manipulation and invention used in this “story” Warmers before you get too tired & emotional.

Posted by nevket240 | Report as abusive

Alister, your reporting this week from the White Continent was great! And this value added extra blog posting is wonderful too, to see the story behind the story. We readers around the world are reading you loud and clear. keep up the good work! — danny

Posted by danny bloom | Report as abusive

Isnt that the paradox of global warming? Currents flowing north from their caribbean origins in the atlantic raise the temperatures in the far northern hemisphere, which affects the polar ice cap, which then when melt actually cools the oceans.

The warming triggers a cooling effect in northern climates, which some can argue is occuring with regular sub-zero arctic fronts continuously sweeping into the mid-section of the US and even reaching into the south. The cooling is actually considered a by product of the warming. Ultimately, the warming, leads to cooling and then back into equilibrium. Even way….BOHICA (Bend over, here it comes again!)

Posted by Dennis | Report as abusive

nevket probably voted for Bush too! If it isn’t getting warmer, why are the shelves disintegrating!

Posted by goody | Report as abusive

Any idiot who thinks that spewing tons of toxic CO2, SO2 and other gases into the atmosphere from factories, smelters, power-plants and automobiles for 100 years, has had no effect on the climate of the Earth, needs to have his/her head examined for the presence of a brain.

Posted by Venkat | Report as abusive

If we are headed to another ice age, man will adapt as man adapted from the last ice age as the earth grew warmer and as the earth grows warmer man will continue to adapt.
Alternative energy is being developed and will continue to be developed. If the seas rise man will move inland or build dikes. CO2 is a natural gas and the plants need it to live. Even at that CO2 still is only 1/3 of 1 percent of our atmosphere. Let’s all take a deep breath.

Posted by BenLurkin | Report as abusive

[…] North Pacific.The continental glaciers in question are the Arctic and Antartica. In the latter, the Wilkins Ice Shelf, connected to the continent by a mere 500-meter (1,640-foot) wide tongue of ice, hangs precariously […]

Posted by British Columbia Coastline Faces Being Shaken and Swamped – SustainLane | Report as abusive

Oh, this was named after my boyfriends great grand father – what a shame :( I like the Wilkins Bay idea!

Posted by Marion | Report as abusive