Cracking up: the ice shelf as big as Northern Ireland

A A A

It is one of the biggest in Antarctica and, for the past century, the massive Wilkins ice shelf appeared to have escaped the ravages of global warming. But now, enormous cracks have appeared in this floating ice platform the size of Northern Ireland. Scientists say it is breaking apart at an unprecedented rate after warmer temperatures weakened it.

A thin strip of ice is all that now prevents the Wilkins shelf from disintegrating and breaking away from the landmass of the Antarctic peninsula, scientists said yesterday. The peninsula is the fastest-warming region in the Antarctic and has seen some of the largest temperature rises on earth – 0.5C per decade – which is why the Wilkins ice shelf is on the verge of disappearing completely, said one of the scientists.

Observers at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in Cambridge and the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado said they were astonished to discover just how fast the ice shelf was breaking apart since the first cracks were seen in February.

"Wilkins is the largest ice shelf yet on the Antarctic peninsula to be threatened, said David Vaughan of the BAS. "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.

"In this case things are happening more rapidly than we thought. We didn't really understand how sensitive these ice shelves are to climate change," said Dr Vaughan, who predicted in the 1990s that it would take 30 years for the ice shelf to break up.

Ice shelves form along the coasts and, because the ice is already floating on water, their disintegration does not affect sea levels. However, scientists believe that their rapid disappearance could lead to the faster movement into the ocean of the massive, land-based ice sheets and glaciers – which do raise sea levels.

The Wilkins ice shelf covers an area of about 5,282 square miles and satellite images taken at the end of February revealed that the rapid disintegration began after an iceberg the size of the Isle of Man broke away from its western edge.

Ted Scambos, of the snow and ice data centre, spotted the development and alerted colleagues at the BAS in Cambridge, who immediately dispatched a Twin Otter reconnaissance aircraft to map the Wilkins ice shelf with aerial photographs.

"I had never seen anything like this before – it was awesome," said Jim Elliott, who was on board the aircraft. "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, looked as though they've been thrown around like rubble – it was like an explosion."

Dr Scambos said: "We believe the Wilkins has been in place for at least a few hundred years. But warm air and exposure to ocean waves are causing a break-up... the collapse underscores that the Wilkins region has experienced an intense melt season. Regional sea ice has all but vanished, leaving the ice shelf exposed to the action of waves."

Several ice shelves on the peninsula have retreated in recent years and six of them – the Prince Gustav Channel, Larsen Inlet, Larsen A and Larsen B, the Wordie, Muller and the Jones ice shelves – have collapsed completely.

The Wilkins ice shelf is important because it is farther south on the Antarctic peninsula, where temperatures are generally colder than at the northern tip. "Climate warming in the Antarctic peninsula has pushed the limit of viability for ice shelves further south – setting some of them that used to be stable on a course of retreat and eventual loss," Dr Vaughan said.

"The Wilkins breakout won't have any effect on sea level because it is floating already, but it is another indication of the impact that climate change is having on the region."

The two biggest ice shelves in Antarctica – the Ross and the Ronne – lie on the edges of the Antarctic mainland farther south and so far show no signs of melting, Dr Vaughan added.

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker