While North America remains just on the edge of spring, just
feeling the last vestiges of winter, in the southern hemisphere the summer is
just about to end. This time of year in Antarctica is the time at which
the effects of the summer’s warmth are most seen in terms of melting.
This week the British Antarctic Survey gave a shocking
report that 220 square miles of ice collapsed and that the Wilkins Ice
Shelf, an ice shelf the size of Connecticut, was "hanging by a
thread". The British Antarctic Survey blames global
warming for these turn of events and says that its witnessed an undeniable
increase in melting and temperatures despite what critics
Professor Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center
at the University of Colorado at Boulder, believes that such events are only
beginning. He states, "We are in for a lot more events like
Scambos first detected the breakup, which started in February, on NASA
satellite images and called up the British Antarctic Society to
investigate. Scambos says that February, the last month of summer, is
when the most heating stress on ice shelves occurs. Scambos emphasizes
the impressive nature of the event, stating, "The amazing thing was, we
saw it within hours of it beginning, in between the morning and the afternoon
pictures of that day."
The British Antarctic Survey also points out that a decade ago; the Wilkins Ice
Shelf already lost about six percent of its ice surface. More may soon be
breaking off, according to the Survey. The group says, "As of
mid-March, only a narrow strip of shelf ice was protecting several thousand
kilometers of potential further breakup."
The total ice shelf's area is currently at about 5,282 square miles, placing
the February loss at about four percent. The British Antarctic Survey used
aircraft to assess the ice shelf and melting from an aerial view. Jim
Elliott, a researcher with the Survey states, "We flew along the main
crack and observed the sheer scale of movement from the breakage. Big
hefty chunks of ice, the size of small houses, look as though they've been
thrown around like rubble -- it's like an explosion."
The breakup is a landmark event according to the Survey, and the largest to
date. David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey noted on the group's
site, "Wilkins is the largest ice shelf on the Antarctic
Peninsula yet to be threatened. I didn't expect to see things happen this
quickly. The ice shelf is hanging by a thread -- we'll know in the next few
days or weeks what its fate will be."
Fortunately, ice shelves are already floating, so the break-up will not affect
world sea levels. For the most part, Scambos says this breakup will have
minimal effects on tourist ship routes and wildlife. He states on the latter,
"Wildlife will be impacted, but they are pretty adept at dealing with a
topsy-turvy world. The ecosystem is pretty resilient."
Among the Antarctic ice shelves which already collapsed are Prince Gustav
Channel, Larsen Inlet, Larsen A, Larsen B, Wordie, Muller and Jones.
Larsen B, which collapsed in 2002, was particularly large, being almost the
size of Rhode island, and was among the events referenced in Al Gore's movie an
Inconvenient Truth, which won
him the Nobel Peace Prize.
The western Antarctic Peninsula, the piece of the continent stretching out
towards South America, has received more warming than anywhere else on Earth,
according to scientists. Its temperature has risen approximately 0.9
degrees F per decade for the last 50 years. Scambos warns that polar warming
may have serious consequences, stating, "Even though they seem far away,
changes in the polar regions could have an impact on both hemispheres, with sea
level rise and changes in climate patterns."
The news of the breakup follows hot on the heels of a new United Nations
Environment Program (UNEP) report, which states that the world's glaciers are
melting at a record rate. According to UNEP, "Data from close to 30
reference glaciers in nine mountain ranges indicate that between the years
2004-2005 and 2005-2006 the average rate of melting and thinning more than
UNEP states that the worst melting occurred in Europe, devastating the ski
industry. Norway's Breidalblikkbrea glacier was the hardest hit, losing
10 feet of snow and ice in 2006, after only losing a foot the year prior.
has also been experiencing severe melts according to recent NASA
research. Researchers stated in 2005 that Greenland's glaciers are
dumping 200 gigatons of water into the ocean per year. UNEP's report
indicates this may have worsened with record melts in 2006.
A research camp on the ice sheet reports that temperatures rose
2.7 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 30 years -- more than double the world
average. The researchers are studying how the melting will affect the
local population and the effects that it might have on the world in general.