Global environmental challenges
In Antarctica, Wilkins Ice Shelf to break up: a victim of warming
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?