An ice bridge which had apparently held a vast Antarctic ice shelf in place during recorded history shattered on Saturday and could herald a wider collapse linked to global warming, a leading scientist said.
“It’s amazing how the ice has ruptured. Two days ago it was intact,” David Vaughan, a glaciologist with the British Antarctic Survey, said of a satellite image of the Wilkins Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula.
The satellite picture, from the European Space Agency (ESA), showed that a 40km long strip of ice believed to pin the Wilkins Ice Shelf in place had splintered at its narrowest point, which is about 500m wide.
“We’ve waited a long time to see this,” he said.
The Wilkins, now the size of Scotland or Connecticut, is one of 10 shelves to have shrunk or collapsed in recent years on the Antarctic Peninsula, where temperatures have risen in recent decades, apparently because of global warming.
The ESA picture showed a jumble of huge flat-topped icebergs in the sea where the ice bridge had been on Friday, pinning the Wilkins to the coast and running northwest to Charcot Island.
“Charcot Island will be a real island for the first time in history,” Vaughan said.
Vaughan, who landed on the flat-topped ice bridge on the Wilkins in January in a ski-equipped plane with other scientists and reporters, said change in Antarctica was rarely so dramatic.
It was the first — and last — visit to the area.
The loss of the ice bridge, which jutted about 20m out of the water and was almost 100km wide in 1950, may now allow ocean currents to wash away more of the Wilkins shelf.
“My feeling is that we will lose more of the ice, but there will be a remnant to the south,” Vaughan said.
Ice shelves float on the water and are formed by ice spilling off Antarctica. They can be hundreds of meters thick.
Nine other shelves have receded or collapsed around the Antarctic Peninsula in the past 50 years, often abruptly, like the Larsen A in 1995 or the Larsen B in 2002.
Cores of sediment on the seabed indicate that some of these ice shelves had been in place for at least 10,000 years. Vaughan said an ice shelf would take many hundreds of years to form.
In January, the remaining ice bridge had been surrounded by icebergs the size of shopping malls, many of them trapped in sea ice. A few seals were visible lolling on sea ice in the low Antarctic sunshine.
On that visit, Vaughan put up a GPS satellite monitoring device and predicted the ice bridge would break within weeks. The plane left quickly, in case the ice was unstable on a part of the world about to disappear from the map.
Temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have risen by up to 3ºC in the past 50 years, the fastest rate of warming in the Southern Hemisphere.
“We believe the warming on the Antarctic Peninsula is related to global climate change, though the links are not entirely clear,” Vaughan said.
Antarctica’s response to warming will go a long way to deciding the pace at which sea levels swell.
About 175 countries have been meeting in Bonn, Germany, since March 29 as part of a push to agree by the end of next year a new UN treaty to combat climate change.
The loss of ice shelves does not affect sea levels — floating ice contracts as it melts and so does not raise ocean levels. But their loss can allow glaciers on land to slide more rapidly towards the sea, adding water to the oceans.