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Antarctica Breaking

Ice shelf the size of Connecticut at risk of collapsing

By Allison Tam | April 1 , 2008
Section of Antarctica's massive Wilkins Ice Shelf that has begun disintegrating under the effects of global warming. (Photo: ©JIM ELLIOTT /AFP/ BRITISH ANTARCTIC SURVEY/NewsCom)
Section of Antarctica's massive Wilkins Ice Shelf that has begun disintegrating under the effects of global warming. (Photo: ©JIM ELLIOTT /AFP/ BRITISH ANTARCTIC SURVEY/NewsCom)

A hunk of ice about the size of the state of Connecticut has started to collapse in Antarctica. According to satellite images, about 160 square miles of the Wilkins Ice Shelf shows massive cracking, scientists from the University of Colorado National Snow and Ice Data Center have reported.

The Wilkins Ice Shelf is a large sheet of permanent floating ice that covers about 5,000 square miles. The large ice span is located on the southwest Antarctic Peninsula about 1,000 miles south of South America.

"Block after block of ice is just tumbling and crumbling into the ocean," Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, said in a telephone interview with the news organization Reuters.

"The shelf is not just cracking off and a piece goes drifting away but totally shattering," Scambos added. "These kinds of events, we don't see them very often. But we want to understand them better because these are the things that lead to a complete loss of the ice shelf."

Scambos is afraid that if the last thin strip of ice connecting the cracking mass breaks off, about half the total ice shelf area could be lost in the next few years. Luckily, Antarctica is nearing the end of its summer melt season, so scientists are hopeful the ice shelf will not come apart this year.

"The warming that's going on in the peninsula is pretty clearly tied to greenhouse gas increases and the change that they have in the atmospheric circulation around the Antarctic," Scambos said.

The potential collapse of the ice shelf seems to be more evidence of global warming's effect on Antarctica. Scientists have determined the continent is the most rapidly warming place on Earth.

Why Does Melting Ice Matter?

This rise in temperature dramatically throws off the balance of the Antarctic ecosystem. Many organisms in Antarctica depend on sea ice to live. Plants and shrimplike crustaceans called krill grow on sea ice. Scientists say the period of time each year during which Antarctic sea ice can form has shortened drastically. Soon there may not be enough ice for these plants and animals that are at bottom of the Antarctic food chain to survive. This in turn endangers the population of species higher up the food chain, like penguins and seals.

Scientists predict Adélie penguins could become extinct by the year 2015. Researchers on the Palmer Peninsula in Antarctica, where the Adélie make their home, have observed a significant drop in the area's krill. Limited krill, they believe, is the main reason behind the dwindling Adélie penguin population.

Another possible contributor to the plight of these penguins is landscape changes on Palmer Peninsula. Diminshing sea ice means that Adélie penguins are less safe; many are slipping into the water and being eaten by their predators like seals and gulls.

Taking a Closer Look

Three scientists working at Palmer Station recently shared their Antarctic research during a Webcast at San Francisco Exploratorium. The scientists, Maria Vernet, Langdon Quetin, and Robin Ross, talked about how they closely evaluate possible problems for the area's wildlife on land as well as in the water.

"We look at what we believe are the main characteristics of the system. We look at the plants, the animals, the properties of the seawater. We also look at the ice and the role of the Antarctic ecosystem in the carbon cycle of the area," explained Vernet.

By learning about the current crisis in the Antarctic ecosystem, scientists hope they will gain a better understanding of the effects of global warming around the world.

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