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.

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
News
news
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary