Environment Forum

Antarctica’s wandering ice shelf

GPS markers usually pinpoint a spot on the earth’s surface to help everything from map-making to navigation.

This one (left) spectacularly didn’t.

In fact, it wandered hundreds of miles (km) this year on an iceberg, blown by winds or carried by ocean currents in huge pirouettes off the coast of Antarctica.

When glaciologist David Vaughan (above) of the British Antarctic Survey stuck the pole holding the GPS (global positioning system) tracking device into the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica in January, the ice felt solid as rock.

Stuart McDill of Reuters TV and I had landed with him in a small plane mounted with skis on a 40-km-long floating ice bridge which had been in place probably for thousands and thousands of years. But it was weakening and about to snap in what Vaughan said was a sign of global warming.

We didn’t stay long.

The GPS marker was meant to transmit its position to satellites to help monitor movements in the ice shelf — up to about 250 metres thick — to measure the strains before it finally cracked up. The ice bridge shattered in April and collapsed into a swarm of icebergs.

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)

Antarctic weather balloons give climate clues


 Meteorologist Tamsin Gray releases a weather balloon at the British Rothera research station on the Antarctic Peninsula to help record temperature and other data from the freezing air. Apart from helping predict the weather, the balloons are also giving scientists clues to global warming.

As you can see, it starts off about 2 metres across but how big it is when it reaches about 25 km above the ground?

a) it shrinks to the size of a tennis ball

b) it swells to the size of a double-decker bus

c) it drifts off into space unchanged

Gray, of the British Antarctic Survey, says that data from the atmosphere about 5 km above Antarctica are helping to confirm findings by the U.N. Climate Panel that greenhouse gases are warming the planet.

Cracking views of Antarctic icebergs

As a view out of your home it’s hard to match — a constantly changing vista of icebergs just outside the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera research station.

Every day the winds and tides on the Antarctic Peninsula shift them around — some break up  abruptly with a loud splash while many simply slowly grind into ice cubes against the shore and disappear. I’ve tried to take a picture every day from the main balcony here (there’s a metal mast on the right hand side of each photo).

Walking along the shore here you can hear a bubbling as air in the ice melts out into the water. The old ice is the clearest — good for putting in cold drinks. Some form gravity-defying shapes such as arches or big holes — one in the bay a few days ago looked like a giant catamaran.

from Blogs Dashboard:

Antarctic soccer, barbecues and warming

For anyone who thinks (like I did) that Antarctica is a bone-chilling freezer lashed by constant blizzards, a visit to the Antarctic Peninsula is a surprise.

As you can see from the picture, you can even play soccer at the British Rothera research station -- Stuart Mc Dill of Reuters TV (a skilled left winger) and I (unskilled) joined in a game last night and I have the grazes to prove it. Our team managed to win, 4-2, on the gravel pitch outside the plane hangar -- meteorologist Ali Price brilliantly knocked in three, even though he was wearing a pair of clunking hiking boots.

And last weekend, staff had an outdoor barbecue with steaks and a cooler for drinks made from snow scooped up by a bulldozer.

In Antarctic base, solar energy and 10 cm commute

On a British Antarctic research station, engineer Andy Binney (pictured above at work) and plumber Adam Gerrard have what must be one of the shortest commutes in the world – 10 cm.

Here is a picture of Andy at work — installing boilers that will be partly powered by solar energy at the Rothera research station in Antarctica — and pointing to the wall behind which he sleeps. For a story about Antarctica shifting to renewable energies, click here.

Andy and Adam share the bedroom behind the 10 cm thick wall. If the boilers play up in the middle of the night, they will even be woken up by the noise.

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).

First aid, Antarctic style

This won’t hurt, I promise….

Training for a couple of weeks’ stay in a British Antarctic Survey research base on the Antarctic Peninsula, Reuters Television reporter Stuart McDill and I have learnt emergency first aid ranging from how to wield a scalpel to ways to bind up a person’s neck injured in a plane crash.

We’ve also learnt the basics of how to sew up wounds, insert tubes into people who cannot breathe and even get the air out of a punctured lung — jabbing in a giant needle between the ribs just below the collar bone to release the pressure.

Most doctors spend years studying to be allowed to do any of these procedures. But safety is a top priority in Antarctica where things can very easily go wrong — the theory goes it’s better for people to have an inkling than no idea at all.

Landing in Antarctica — first icebergs

A buzz of excitement went around the plane (left) when a scientist spotted the first mountains of Antarctica through the window on a flight from the southern tip of Chile.

Even veteran Antarctic visitors say there’s something special every time they see the continent — after all, Antarctica was only first spotted in 1820 — Fabian von Bellingshausen, a Estonian who was a captain in the Russian navy, usually gets the credit.

Stuart Mc Dill of Reuters Television and I flew in with about a dozen scientists and other staff to the Rothera Base, run by the British Antarctic Survey, on the Antarctic Peninsula in a tiny Dash-7 plane from the southern tip of Chile.

Antarctic ice expands — global warming at work?

Adelie penguins in Antarctica are photographed in this January 18, 2005 file photo. The pesticide DDT, banned decades ago in much of the world, still shows up in penguins in Antarctica, probably due to the chemical’s accumulation in melting glaciers, a sea bird expert said on May 9, 2008. REUTERS/Heidi Geisz/Virginia Institute of Marine Science/Handout (ANTARCTICA).Ice getting bigger hardly sounds like a sign of global warming but that’s apparently what is happening in the seas around Antarctica.

Leading climate scientists say that a tiny trend towards bigger ice in winter floating on the oceans around the frozen continent since the late 1970s — the maximum extent is around now, in September — is consistent with models of climate change that predict harsher winds and less warmer water at the surface.

It may even be that there’s more snow and rain falling onto the southern oceans because of climate change — that can raise the amount of fresh water on the surface and, hey presto, fresh water freezes at a higher temperature than salt water.