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Antarctic ice shelf on verge of collapse

world Updated: Jan 21, 2009 12:59 IST
Alister Doyle
Alister Doyle
Antarctic ice shelf on verge of collapse

A huge Antarctic ice shelf is on the brink of collapse with just a sliver of ice holding it in place, the latest victim of global warming that is altering maps of the frozen continent.

“We’ve come to the Wilkins Ice Shelf to see its final death throes,” said David Vaughan, a glaciologist at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), after the first — and probably last — plane landed near the narrowest part of the ice.

The flat-topped shelf has an area of thousands of square kilometres, jutting 20 metres out of the sea off the Antarctic Peninsula.

But it is held together only by an ever-thinning 40-km strip of ice that has eroded to an hour-glass shape just 500 metres wide at its narrowest. In 1950, the strip was almost 100 km wide. “It really could go at any minute,” said Vaughan. He added that the ice bridge could linger weeks or months. The Wilkins once covered 16,000 sq km. It has lost a third of its area but is still about the size of Jamaica or the US state of Connecticut. Once the strip breaks up, the sea is likely to sweep away much of the remaining ice.

Icebergs the shape and size of shopping malls already dot the sea around the shelf as it disintegrates. Seals bask in the southern hemisphere summer sunshine on icebergs by expanses of open water.