Global environmental challenges
In Antarctica, Wilkins Ice Shelf snaps
It’s not often you go to a part of the world that disappears from the map a few weeks later.
Luckily we weren’t on the Wilkins Ice Shelf (above) in Antarctica on April 4, when an ice bridge that may be holding ice the size of Jamaica in place shattered into dozens of giant pieces (story here).
The break-up was captured on satellite images by the European Space Agency (below left from today, with an image of the ice bridge intact from April 2, below right)
But we were there in January — Stuart McDill of Reuters TV and I travelled with a group of scientists from the British Antarctic Survey who landed on the flat-topped ice in sunshine in a bright red Twin Otter plane. (main photo above: the ice cliff at the front is about 20 metres high. Photo below left shows the plane on the ice).
It was the first, and last, visit by anyone to an area that has now cracked into a chaos of giant icebergs. We landed just by the narrowest part of the strip that stretched from Charcot Island southeast to the coast of Antarctica.
Even in January, the scientists led by David Vaughan of BAS were reluctant to linger because of a risk of cracks in the ice. The shelf may well have been there for thousands of years.
Using a plane with skis instead of wheels, we landed close to the narrowest part — only about 500 metres wide; David set up a GPS monitoring device (wonder what’s happened to that?) and the rest of us gazed in amazement around the flat-topped ice.
It seemed so stable, so permanent, that it was hard to imagine it might vanish. The ice is hundreds of metres thick, most of it below the water. We’d been waiting for several days for the weather to clear — it was a glorious day with blue skies and temperatures above freezing.
But the ice bridge — about 100 km wide in 1950 — has steadily shrunk since the 1990s, with global warming caused by human use of fossil fuels the main suspect. Sediments taken beneath some other collapsed ice shelves to the north show that they have been in place for at least 10,000 years.
But the danger is that, when ice shelves break up, the ice on land behind them in glaciers will start accelerating towards the ocean, adding water that will raise sea levels. The Wilkins is an exception in that it does not have much pent-up ice behind it.
But there are far bigger ice shelves to the south that do.
Most times writing about the environment means a glacial pace of change.
Sometimes, something snaps.