“It’s amazing how the ice has ruptured,” said Vaughn, noting that it was intact at the beginning of April. “We’ve waited a long time to see this.” A satellite image of the Wilkins Ice Shelf showed a 40-kilometre strip of ice believed to pin the shelf in place had snapped at its narrowest point, about 500 meters wide. The break left a jumble of huge flat-topped icebergs in the sea.
The loss of the ice bridge — which was almost 100 kilometres wide in 1950 and had been in place for at least hundreds of years — could allow ocean currents to wash away more of the Wilkins shelf. In the fastest rate of warming in the Southern Hemisphere, temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have risen by up to about 3° Celsius in the past 50 years.
“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 of global sea-level rise. Nine other shelves have receded or collapsed around the peninsula in the past half-century.
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