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Chilean scientists explore the risk of collapse in the world's largest ice shelf

Chilean scientists explore the risk of collapse in the world's largest ice shelf

A group of scientists integrated in the Chilean Antarctic Expedition are studying these days the possibilities of an eventual collapse on the shelf adjacent to the Unión Glacier, an extreme place located a thousand kilometers from the South Pole.

“The Union Glacier is at a point adjacent to the largest marine ice shelf in Antarctica. If this platform were to collapse, this would have climatological consequences on a global level, ”glaciologist Francisco Fernandoy explained to Efe.

Fernandoy travels these days to that place, located at 79 degrees south latitude and which since last year houses the base camp of the Scientific Polar Station, operated jointly by the Chilean Antarctic Institute and the Armed Forces of this country.

The western part of Antarctica is warming, both on the surface, from exposure to the air, and at depth, in contact with the sea, and it is doing so at much higher rates than those registered in the rest of the world. planet.

Fernandoy confesses his passion for this extreme place, which he met for the first time last year and which contrasts with the areas frequented by scientists in the Antarctic Peninsula, where the climate is much warmer and more humid.

"That place is far from everything, once the plane leaves us there, we will have to be self-sufficient," he said when describing this expedition, "which mixes science and adventure in equal parts.

The fact that very few scientists have entered this remote area of ​​the white continent makes the information very scarce.

“There is no meteorological station there, there are no people living. The only observations come from space. We lack data in the field that allow us to verify if the information captured by the satellites shows what is really happening ”, he explained.

Fernandoy recalls what happened ten years ago with the Larsen floating barrier, an ice shelf that broke off from the Antarctic continent, causing the glaciers it supported to move towards the sea.

Union Glacier is today the largest ice shelf in Antarctica, which is the same as saying the largest in the world, considering that the Arctic is seasonal, since it appears in winter and disappears in summer.

"The difference is that these sea ice platforms that are attached to Antarctica serve as a stopper so that the glaciers that are on the continent do not flow into the sea," explained Fernandoy.

"What worries the scientific community is that the disappearance of this brake could have climatological repercussions worldwide," he warned.

The gaze of researchers is not only on what can happen; it also addresses the events of the past.

Fossil waste

Using fossil remains, Antarctic paleontologists strive to reconstruct what the white continent looked like before it separated from South America.

"Because Antarctica was actually formed from the union of pieces of the continent that were agglomerating," explained the glaciologist.

At the moment, at Union Glacier, scientists are extracting ice cores about twenty meters long, very shallow fragments if one takes into account that the ice cap in Antarctica can be up to four kilometers thick.

The oldest cores that have been extracted so far are around 800,000 or 900,000 years old, but the scientific community is looking for areas to extract ice fragments that record a climatic history of one million years.

The Antarctic Difference

Antarctica is the only continent that has no natural inhabitants, and the few meteorological stations that exist are in the coastal areas and keep a record of barely half a century.

"With these data it is not possible to determine whether the changes we are observing now are occurring naturally or are the effect of human activity."

That is why it is necessary to organize scientific expeditions to such inhospitable places as Glaciar Unión.

“We need to go further, to see if these warming trends have been occurring before man began to develop industrial activities or not. Hence the importance of doing field research ”.

"We can reconstruct and predict what will happen in the future but to do that, we first have to have accurate and reliable information about what happened in the past," he concluded.

Photo: Scientists Jenny Blamey (i) and Giannina Espina on Mount Rossman Cove, in the Unión Glacier (Antarctica). EFE / Felipe Trueba

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