Service Interruption

Press Room


For information about the 2008 Wilkins breakup, please see the NSIDC Press Release, Antarctic Ice Shelf Disintegration Underscores a Warming World.

Images of Wilkins Ice Shelf Breakup

16 August 1999

NSIDC has monitored the Wikins ice shelf for signs of retreat for several years. A review of historical data and older satellite images indicates that retreat rate along the northern edge of the Wilkins began to pick up in the mid to late 1980's. In the last few years, several small breakup events have occurred, with long narrow icebergs calving from the shelf front and then becoming entrapped in thick sea ice in front of the shelf.

In March of 1998, AVHRR images recorded what appeared to be a large breakup event along the northwestern front. The shelf appearance changed from solid white to mottled in images of reflectance, from a uniformly cold temperature to a mixture of warm and cold surfaces in thermal imagery. Recently, SAR data gathered in August of 1998 was examined, and it revealed that this event was a major retreat of nearly 1,100 square kilometers (425 square miles).

Ordinarily, ice shelves calve relatively large bergs from their fronts; the majority of the area lost to maintain equilibrium is lost in a few major calving events. In contrast, in the recent collapses on the Larsen B, and as vividly illustrated here for the Wilkins, the retreating Peninsula ice shelves calved thousands of small icebergs at once, suggesting that they are shattered in place before being dispersed by storms, currents, or wave action. A mechanism in which meltwater enhances ongoing, natural fracturing in the shelf was suggested many years ago. Current data supports the theory very well.

Wilkins: 28 January 1996

AVHRR: 28 January 1996
Wilkins: 20 November 1998

AVHRR: 20 November 1998

The breakups come as temperatures continue to rise and the melt season lengthens on both sides of the Antarctic Peninsula in the 1990's. Melt ponds are visible in other SAR images in the northeastern area of the Wilkins, and other field work by the British Antarctic Survey suggests that the snow on the shelf is saturated with water.

The lower image is an enhanced synthetic aperture radar (SAR) image acquired by Radarsat and provided by the Alaska Satellite Facility.

Wilkins SAR Image, 16 August 1998

SAR Image: 16 August 1998





Learn About NSIDC


General public and data users:
Contact User Services or
+1 303.492.6199

Members of the press: or
+1 303.492.1497