The collapse of 220 square miles, or 4 percent of the current surface area, of the Wilkins Ice Shelf can be seen in NASA satellite photos.  (Source: NASA)

The British Antarctic Survey shot this picture showing that the backside of the shelf is "hanging on by a thread" and is on the verge of full collapse.  (Source: Jim Elliott/British Antarctic Survey)

In Greenland, water pours into the sea as glaciers melt at an unprecedented pace.  (Source: NASA)
Another sign of global warming rears its ugly head

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 may say.

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 this."

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 doubled."

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.

Greenland 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.

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