Shifts in winds around the southern Ocean tied to human emissions of greenhouse gases have warmed the Antarctic peninsula, contributing to the break-up of the Larsen B ice shelf in 2002, scientists said on Monday.
“This is the first time that anyone has been able to demonstrate a physical process directly linking the break-up of the Larsen Ice Shelf to human activity,” said Gareth Marshall, lead author of the study at the British Antarctic Survey.
The chunk that collapsed into the Weddell Sea in 2002 was 3,250 square kilometres, bigger than Luxembourg or the US state of Rhode Island.
Most climate experts say greenhouse gases, mainly from fossil fuels burned in power plants, factories and cars, are warming the globe and could bring more erosion, floods or rising seas.
However, scientists are wary of linking individual events – such as a heat wave or a storm – to warming.
But the British and Belgian scientists, writing in the Journal of Climate, said there was evidence that global warming and a thinning of the ozone layer over Antarctica, caused by human chemicals, had strengthened winds blowing clockwise around Antarctica.
The Antarctic peninsula‘s chain of mountains, about 2,000 metres high, used to shield the Larsen ice shelf on its eastern side from the warmer winds.
“If the westerlies strengthen the number of times that the warm air gets over the mountain barrier increases quite dramatically,” John King, a co-author of the study at the British Antarctic Survey, said.
The average summer temperatures on the north-east of the Antarctic peninsula had been about 2.2 Celsius over the past 40 years.
But on recent summer days when winds swept over the mountains into the area the air could warm by 5.5 Celsius.
On the warmest days, temperatures could reach about 10 Celsius, scientist warned.
King said temperature records in Antarctica went back only about 50 years but that there was evidence from sediments on the seabed – which differ if covered by ice or open water – that the Larsen ice shelf had been in place for 5,000 years.
“Further south on the main Antarctic continent temperatures are pretty stable,” he said. “There is no clear direct evidence of human activity affecting the main area.”
In Ottawa, the director of the British Antarctic Survey said that if the warming trend continued then other ice shelves would one day be at risk.
“Ultimately, yes, I think that’s bound to be the case … We’ve seen this southward migration as the wave of increased temperatures has penetrated further and further south,” Dr Chris Rapley told Reuters in an interview on Monday.
The collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf did not raise world sea levels because the ice was floating.
King said the removal of the floating ice barrier could accelerate the flow of land-based glaciers toward the sea, at least in the short term, which could raise sea levels.
Rapley said recent data had revealed for the first time that two major glaciers in eastern Antarctica were also starting to discharge ice into the sea.