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Is the Wilkins Ice Shelf About to Collapse?

The news from the European Space Agency is alarming: The Wilkins Ice Shelf is in imminent danger of collapse. Winter is coming in the Antarctic, but warming sea and air temperatures have reduced an ice bridge connecting the ice shelf to Latady and Charcot Islands to a very narrow width. New fractures are appearing along that ice bridge, and if it breaks, the entire Wilkins Ice Shelf could crumble, releasing huge amounts of ice into the oceans, raising sea levels worldwide. The ESA warns of the “beginning of what appears to be the demise of the ice bridge”.

wilkins ice bridge 2009That’s quite alarming, but temper this news with a memory of what the European Space Agency said about the same ice bridge anchoring the same ice shelf just 10 months ago. The ESA quoted two researchers from the Center for Remote Sensing of Land Surfaces at Bonn University and the Institute of Geophysics at Münster University: “The remaining plate has an arched fracture at its narrowest position, making it very likely that the connection will break completely in the coming days.”

That complete break still has not come. That doesn’t mean it won’t come, but I think we ought to regard news of the “imminent” break up of big blocks of Arctic and Antarctic ice with the same attitude we read of imminent break ups among celebrities reported by supermarket tabloids. We’ll believe it when we see it.

4 comments to Is the Wilkins Ice Shelf About to Collapse?

  • DB

    “…if it breaks, the entire Wilkins Ice Shelf could crumble, releasing huge amounts of ice into the oceans, raising sea levels worldwide.”

    The ice shelf pretty much floats on water (hence the name ice shelf) so that it would not raise the sea level if it unattached itself. Even if it did raise the sea level, the amount would be miniscule, given the surface area of the world’s oceans.

    • DB, when coastal (on the water) ice melts, it does two things:

      1. It replaces the reflective, bright white surface with the comparatively heat absorbing, darker water.
      2. It ceases to hold back ice that’s behind it on the land.

      The ice that the crumbling of the Wilkins Ice Shelf would release would not just be the Wilkins Ice Shelf itself. The Wilkins Ice Shelf restrains ice flow from larger Alexander Island, which in turn is part of what restrains ice flow off of the mainland – Palmer Land.

  • Jrok

    DB:

    The iceshelf pretty much floats on water (hence the name ice shelf) so that it would not raise the sea level if it unattached itself. Even if it did raise the sea level, the amount would be miniscule, given the surface area of the world’s oceans.

    Sea Level rise is a expodential function. Where 1/x is the basic rise function , where X is the variable, many at that. We are nearing that critical point where the variables entering the equation are nearing one, once we pass that mark, it will increase rapidly. Thermal expansion also plays a huge role, along with actual ocean currents around the iceshelf itself, which is believed to be changing due to its salinity decreasing. These to are independent 1/x functions that have that critical point where rates begin to diverge rapidly.

    Once this goes, the current will over take the coast and continue a very high rapid rate of erosion on the actual iceshelf itself, which could lead to several more Wilkin size collapses over the next decade. That would be very noticable difference.

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