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Chunks of Antarctic Wilkins Ice Shelf breaking off

  • 29 March 2008
  • Written by 
  • Published in Climate
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.

The BAS sent a team of investigators to look at the breakup of the Wilkins Ice Shelf.

Jim Elliott, who was riding in the Twin Otter aircraft as it flew over the site, stated, "I've never seen anything like this before – it was awesome. 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."

Although the break up of the Wilkins Ice Shelf is a sign that the Earth is warming up a bit, what is commonly called global warming, the activities of ice shelf breakups are also providing scientists with valuable information on what causes such events to happen.

Scientists are now confident that ice shelves break up due to a combination of actions: waves generated by storms in open waters and air and water temperatures.

Global warming is a climatic increase in average temperature of the air near the surface of the planet and the waters of the oceans.

Dramatic collapses of ice shelves have been occurring in Antarctica over the past thirty years or so. Many of them have retreated, while a few of them have completely collapsed, such as the Prince Gustav Channel, Jones Ice Shelf, and Larsen Inlet.

Antarctica is the fifth largest of the seven continents on Earth. It is the southernmost continent and the Earth’s coldest one. It surrounds the South Pole of the Earth, similarly to how the Arctic surrounds Earth’s North Pole. The Antarctica is covered almost completely with ice and is surrounded by the Southern Ocean.

Since the middle part of the twentieth century onward to today, this phenomenon called global warming has been caused by events from nature, humans, or from a varied combination of natural and human-made activities.


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