APR 07, 2019 7:51 AM PDT

Antarctic ice shelf on the breaking point

The Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica is on the tipping point – literally. Seven years ago, 1,500 square kilometer iceberg began to rift, starting its separation from the Brunt Ice Shelf. Since then, the rift has grown substantially, and glaciology experts say they expect a calving any moment.

The rift has been monitored over the years by scientists from Northumbria University, in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, in collaboration with scientists from ENVEO, a remote sensing company in Austria. Northumbria Professor Hilmar Gudmundsson commented, "I have been carrying out research in this area for more than 15 years and have been monitoring the growth of the cracks since they first emerged in 2012. Satellite images of the changes in the ice shelf have been shared online and there has been much speculation about the cause of this movement and the impact the iceberg will have when it breaks away.”

In the two teams’ collaboration, scientists from ENVEO gather satellite imagery from Copernicus Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 satellites to extract data about the changing speed of the ice shelf. The Northumbria University researchers can then use this imagery for modelling and interpretation purposes.

Especially key to note is that until recently the iceberg housed the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley Research Station – it has since been moved to a safer spot, where the personnel will be able to continue their research in safety.

"We have been tracking the movement of the ice shelf for many years and our modelling indicates that this breakaway is entirely expected. That is why in 2014 we recommended that the Halley Research Station was moved to a new and safe location on the ice shelf,” said Gudmundsson. “Our field observations and modelling has meant that the station was safely relocated with no danger to the scientists using it and minimal disruption to the research taking place."

Now, given the current doomsday perspectives regarding climate change, you might be fast to think that this glacial event is a result of climate change. But in fact the study that Professor Gudmundsson and colleague Dr. Jan De Rydt are planning to publish in The Cyrosphere, “Calving cycle of the Brunt Ice Shelf, Antarctica, driven by changes in ice-shelf geometry,” argues otherwise. Their research suggests that while climate change is affecting other processes in Antarctica, this particular rift is part of a natural cycle.

Is the calving of the Brunt Ice Shelf a result of climate change in Antarctica? Photo: Pixabay

"What many people do not realize is that this is a natural process and something which has happened time and again,” said Gudmundsson. “We recognize that climate change is a serious problem which is having an impact around the world, and particularly in the Antarctic. However, there is no indication from our research that this particular event is related to climate change.”

The scientists at both institutes plan to continue their collaboration in order to keep collection observational data on Antarctic glaciers in order to improve existing ice flow models and better understand natural and man-made cycles of the region.

Sources: Science Daily, The Cryosphere

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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