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Complete Rupture of Ice Bridge Supporting Wilkins Ice Shelf

69.1S 70.3W

April 8th, 2009 Category: Climate Change

Wilkins Ice Shelf, Antarctica - April 8th, 2009

Wilkins Ice Shelf, Antarctica - April 8th, 2009

Detail of ruptured ice bridge

Detail of ruptured ice bridge

After days of gradual thinning and cracking, the ice bridge connecting the Wilkins Ice Shelf to Charcot Island (top left) has ruptured completely (see center of close-up).

In late February 2008, due to warming temperatures, the Wilkins Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula disintegrated, as can be observed from the brick-like patterns of icebergs on the right.

The bridge of ice acted as an important barrier, preventing the icebergs created by the disintegration of the ice shelf from moving into the open ocean.

Some scientists believe that the Wilkins Ice Shelf is now only days away from completely breaking off.

Scientists have been concerned about the ice shelf’s integrity for years.

In 1993, Professor David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey predicted that the northern part of the Wilkins ice shelf was likely to be lost within 30 years if climate warming on the Peninsula were to continue at the same rate.

On 25 March 2008 a 405 km2 (156 sq mi) chunk of the Wilkins ice shelf disintegrated, putting an even larger portion of the glacial ice shelf at risk. While temperature may have played a part in this disintegration, several recent earthquakes magnitude 5.0 and greater along the Pacific-Antarctic Ridge may also have contributed.

Scientists were surprised when they discovered the rest of the 14,000 km2 (5,400 sq mi) ice shelf was beginning to break away from the continent. What is left of the Wilkins ice shelf was, until now, connected by only a narrow beam of ice.

At the end of May, another break-off further reduced the width of the connecting ice bridge from 6–2.7 km (3.7–1.7 mi). This second smaller event, with about 160 km2 (62 sq mi) of ice separating, was the first documented break-up that occurred in winter.

On 29 November 2008 it was announced that The Wilkins Ice Shelf has lost around 2,000 square kilometres (770 sq mi) so far in 2008.  Satellite imagery showed new rifts on the ice shelf that make it dangerously close to breaking away from the ice bridge and the islands to which it was connected.

On 20 January 2009, Reuters reported that the ice shelf could collapse into the ocean within “weeks or months”. By this time, the ice bridge had narrowed to a very thin strip of ice (varying from 2 km to 500 meters at the narrowest) and was the only thing holding up the ice shelf, which made it very vulnerable to cracks and fissures. The ice bridge finally broke on April 5th.

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