Wilkins Ice Breakup Not Likely from Climate Change

by | May 28, 2013

Acquired March 23, 2013, this high-resolution image from the WorldView-2 satellite shows a portion of the Wilkins Ice Shelf and a large assemblage of icebergs and sea ice just off the shelf front. Some of the iceberg surfaces give clues that they recently broke off from the shelf. Many are somewhat lighter in color than the nearby sea ice, and some bear the same surface features as those seen on the shelf, including melt pond scars, which appear in pale blue. The scars are areas where meltwater once pooled on top of the ice and then refroze.

Just as earthquakes can sometimes leave landscapes more prone to future quakes, the breakups on the Wilkins Ice Shelf on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula left it vulnerable to further disintegration.

The sea ice that had long pressed the shelf up against the coastline moved out, putting the remnants of the shelf in direct contact with open water. Ocean waves went to work on the ice, and in early 2013 the fracturing continued.

Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center has followed the effects of rising temperatures on the ice shelves of the Antarctic Peninsula, but he doesn't attribute this most recent breakup to global change.

I wouldn't characterize this breakup as a direct result of climate warming, but rather an indirect result of the change in the shape of the shelf, he states. A breakup changes the stresses within the ice and will cause small retreats that reshape the shelf for several years. These retreats tend to happen when ocean waves can impinge directly on the shelf front.

Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe and Paul Morin and William Risse, Polar Geospatial Center.

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