In Antarctica, Wilkins Ice Shelf snaps

April 6, 2009

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.


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It is interesting to note the the ice shelves have been in place for the last 10,000 years. That roughly marks the end of the last ice age. The rise of civilization was possible only because of the stable and warm climate conditions that have prevailed. These conditions allowed agriculture production to rise to a point where many people could now do other things with their hands besides hunting and foraging.

For better or worse we are at a crucial juncture for all life on Earth, not just humans. We have done a masterful job building civilization to this point with our hands. Maybe the next evolutionary step is to continue building civilization by using our brains too.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

I wonder if the reduced ice in the north allows more warm water to fill in through from the Pacific, which would then reduce the amount of Atlantic inflow, adding to the slowing of the North Atlantic current, adding to the Pacific inflow, until you change the Pacific and Atlantic currents for the next few decades and what will be the impact on wind, ice accumulation, and jet streams.

I don’t expect answers, by the way, I’ll just watch.

Posted by Earl_E | Report as abusive

Earl E you are correct not to expect an answer I provided one which met all the censorship requirements but it was rejected because it did not agree with the IPCC dogma thus it was refused. It is clear why the public is being so misinformed because the news media have built a brick wall against the truth.

Posted by Barry Moore | Report as abusive

Mr. Moore-

What is this alleged truth you are referring to?

Posted by Vic Sage | Report as abusive

Global sea ice is higher than the 30 year average and higher than it was about 30 years ago. See global sea ice anomaly graph at bottom of web site:

It is an exercise in cherry picking data to make an issue of one polar area- antarctic peninsula ( the area most likely to see a natural decline in ice shelfs ).

Posted by Tom Barney | Report as abusive

Yes, sometimes something snaps. Great post and great snaps, sir. My graduation speech to the class of 2099 is about a snap of a different kind, about climate: see here: -E&feature=channel_page

Posted by Danny Bloom | Report as abusive