Home Science Climate Chunks of Antarctic Wilkins Ice Shelf breaking off

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The Wilkins Ice Shelf is a rectangular shaped piece of ice shelf that is part of Wilkins Sound in Antarctica. Roughly stable for hundreds of years, it has recently been disintegrating at an alarming rate.

Wilkins Sound is a sound (another word for a seaway) in the Antarctic Peninsula. It is located between the western coast of Alexander Island (to the east) and the eastern shores of Charcot Island and Latady Island (to the southwest). Most of Wilkins Sound consists of the Wilkins Ice Shelf.

Wilkins Sound and Wilkins Ice Shelf are both named after Sir George Hubert Wilkins (1888-1958), an Australian explorer, pilot, photographer, and geographer, who observed both while investigating the area in 1929.

Wilkins Ice Shelf is about 80 miles in length and around 60 miles in width; thus, an area of about 4,800 square miles (1,240 square kilometers)—about 208 times the area of Manhattan Island (New York City) in the United States and roughly the same size as the metropolitan city of Sydney, Australia.

On February 28, 2008, an iceberg broke off from the shelf. It was about 40 square miles (100 square kilometers) in area.

Then, on March 25, 2008, another much larger chunk of it, about 160 square miles (400 square kilometers) in area (about 7 times the area of Manhattan), began to disintegrate.

Scientists have observed that only a thin strip of ice between two islands is holding up the rest of the shelf. If this 3.7-mile (6-kilometer) wide beam breaks off, it will probably take the rest of the shelf with it.

Satellite and aerial images (YouTube) of the collapse of the shelf were taken, which helped scientists study further the actions of the ice shelf. The science behind such ice shelf activities is described at Science at YouTube .

Scientists aren’t sure what will happen over the next few weeks. With winter coming on in the southern hemisphere, scientists think that it might “hang on” at least until next year.

From a press release by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) “Antarctic ice shelf ‘hangs by a thread’,” David Vaughan, a scientist with the BAS, stated, "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."

What did the BAS team find on its exploratory trip to the Wilkins Ice Shelf? Please continue on to the next page.


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William Atkins

William Atkins completed educational degrees in science (bachelor’s in physics and mathematics) from Illinois State University (Normal, United States) and business (master’s in entrepreneurship and bachelor’s in industrial relations) from Western Illinois University