A new scientific study published yesterday indicates that West Antarctica is going through some dramatic changes at the moment that include major collapses of the ice shelf found there. The study predicts that major shifts in the ice will occur in the years ahead, and it will have profound effects on the frozen continent, and the rest of the world as well.
Last year, a chunk of ice 225 square miles in size broke off from the Pine Island Glacier and slid into the ocean. At the time, researchers were at a loss to explain the phenomenon, but now believe they have discovered the root cause. A massive crack formed in the ice 20 miles (32 km) inland and deep beneath the surface. As the crack widened, the incredible weight of the ice gave way, causing it to collapse altogether and fall into the sea. It was unlike anything that anyone had ever seen in polar regions before.
As we all know, Antarctica is covered in a massive ice field that is at much as 2555 meters (1.5 miles) thick in some points. That ice is held in place by large glaciers that ring much of the region. But now, those glaciers are in full retreat, particularly along the Amundsen Sea where the waters are warming, which is having an impact on the conditions there. If those glaciers continue to recede, and temperatures continue to go up, the Antarctic ice could melt and run into the sea, causing ocean levels to rise around the world. Worst of all, for many scientists this isn't a question of "if" but more like "when" it will happen.
Researchers who studied the Pine Island incident say that the collapse of the ice shelf there isn't a new thing, and that it happens ever few years. What has them worried however is that the calving of the glacier started so far inland and so deep beneath he surface. They haven't seen that happen before, and it is an indication of what may be happening across the entire continent.
The brief explanation for this unprecedented event is that melting due to rising temperatures is now occurring where the underlying bedrock meets the ice. And unfortunately Pine Island isn't the only place where this has been observed, as NASA also spotted similar activity in another part of Antarctica last month. If this becomes a common occurrence as it appears that it could, we are likely to see a dramatic loss of ice across the entire region. Worse yet, the results of the study indicate that it is taking place very quickly. Far more quickly than anyone had anticipated.
This is just another example of how climate change – man-made or otherwise – is reshaping our planet. It is tough to deny that these things are happening, and while we have taken strides to help limit our impact on these conditions, it may be far too little and far too late.