In a new study that provides clues about how Antarctica's nation-sized Ross Ice Shelf might respond to a warming climate, U.S. and Japanese oceanographers have shown that a 100,000-square-mile section of the ice shelf broke apart within 1,500 years during a warming period after the last ice age.
The Ross Ice Shelf is the world's largest ice shelf, a vast floating extension of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet that is about the size of France. But at the end of the last ice age, it extended much farther north and covered the entire Ross Sea.
A study in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences details how the ice shelf shrank during a period of climate warming following the ice age. The paper was co-authored by Rice University oceanographer John Anderson, postdoctoral research associate Lauren Simkins, graduate student Lindsay Prothro and colleagues at the University of Tokyo.
"At the height of the last ice age, we know that the sheet of ice covering the Antarctic continent was larger and thicker than it is today," said Anderson, Rice's Maurice Ewing Professor of Oceanography and professor of Earth science. "This continent-enveloping ice sheet extended all the way to the continental shelf, and in western Antarctica it filled the entire Ross Sea basin."
While people typically think of continents as landmasses that rise above the sea, the margins of all continents, including Antarctica, extend well beyond their shores to include continental shelves, subsea aprons that are far more shallow than the deep ocean abysses that mark the continental boundary.
In western Antarctica, the Ross Sea is characterized by a continental shelf that extends nearly 1,000 miles from the coast and is as much as 3,500 feet deep. Anderson said the geologic record shows that as recently as 18,000 years ago the entire Ross basin was filled with ice that was so thick and heavy it was grounded on the seafloor all the way to the edge of the continental shelf.
"We found that about 10,000 years ago, this thick, grounded ice sheet broke apart in dramatic fashion," Anderson said. "The evidence shows that an armada of icebergs -- each at least twice as tall as the Empire State Building -- was pushed out en masse. We know this because this part of the Ross Sea is about 550 meters (1,804 feet) deep, and the icebergs were so large and so tightly packed that they gouged huge furrows into the seafloor as they moved north."