A swath of ice bigger than Connecticut is hanging on "by a thread" and is likely to break away from Antarctica, according to the British Antarctic Survey. A "thin strip of ice hanging between two islands" is now all that is holding the Wilkins Ice Shelf fixed.
An iceberg 25-miles long and about 1.5-miles wide has already broken away in recent weeks. Despite marked warming (0.9-degrees F per decade) in this part of Antarctica over the last half-century, the imminent breakup of the 5,000-square-mile ice shelf defies predictions that it would last decades longer.
This would be the seventh ice shelf in the region to collapse in the past 30 years. The Larsen B ice shelf, which disappeared in a month's time in 2002, is the best known. Others include the Prince Gustav Channel, Larsen Inlet, Larsen A, Wordie, Muller and Jones ice shelves.
Wilkins is the largest ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula yet to be threatened," said Prof. David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey. "I didnt expect to see things happen this quickly. The ice shelf is hanging by a thread well know in the next few days or weeks what its fate will be."
While the breakup of the ice shelf won't affect sea level (imagine an ice cube melting in a glass of water), "it is another indication of the impact that climate change is having on the region, Vaughan said. The disintegration of the ice shelf could lead to sea-level rise if the glaciers locked behind it on land now slides into the sea (imagine putting another ice cube in a full glass of water).
The edge of the shelf crumbled into the sky-blue pattern of exposed deep glacial ice that has become characteristic of climate-induced ice shelf breakups such as the Larsen B ice shelf breakup in 2002, according to Ted Scambos, of the University of Colorado at Boulder's National Snow and Ice Data Center.
The Antarctic summer has just ended, so further disintegration of the ice shelf is not expected this year. The Arctic summer saw unprecedented melting of sea ice.
Jim Elliott was onboard the Survey's Twin Otter described the situation like this:
Ive 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 theyve been thrown around like rubble its like an explosion.
One heard round the world.
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