Massive ice shelf expected to break away from Antarctica

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Illustrated map of the Wilkins Shelf in 2008
Image: National Snow and Ice Data Center/NASA.

The European Space Agency (ESA) reported on Friday that the Wilkins Shelf, an enormous Antarctic ice shelf half the size of Scotland, could break away from the continent very soon.

According to reports, only a thin strip of ice connects it to the Charcot Island, and cracks are expanding rapidly. This is the largest shelf of ice so far to have disintegrated in the Antarctic.

In February 2008, the shelf lost 425 square kilometres (164 square miles) of ice, followed by a loss of another 62 square miles in May 2008.

"During the last year the ice shelf has lost about 1800 square kilometers (694 square miles), or about 14 percent of its size," said Angelika Humbert from the Institute of Geophysics at University of Münster in Germany. Scientists say that the shelf, if it detaches from the mainland, won't cause an increase in sea levels, as it is already floating.

Most scientists believe that the incident is further evidence of global warming. Average temperatures in the Antarctic peninsula have increased by about 2.5 degrees Celsius (3.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in the past fifty years.


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