1997 photo of massive crack in Larson B ice shelf
- ORONO, MAINE - Antarctica may be far away, but Mainers - especially those
who own coastal property - may want to pay attention to changes in the
icy continent. More than 100 scientists from around the globe gathered
at the University of Maine this past week to discuss whether and how fast
the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is collapsing. The ice sheet, which is larger
than New England and the mid-Atlantic states combined and more than a mile
thick, is thought to be slowly disappearing. As ice breaks off the sheet,
which covers about 10 percent of Antarctica, it floats out into the ocean
where it melts, slowly raising the level of the Earth's oceans.
- If the whole ice sheet collapsed, global
sea level would rise by about 20 feet, flooding most of the world's major
- While few scientists in Orono this week
subscribe to this doomsday scenario, they warn that changes in the ice
sheet do have ramifications for those who live in more northerly climes.
- ''Whatever happens in Antarctica affects
Orono,'' said Hal Borns, a University of Maine geology professor and an
organizer of the prestigious conference.
- ''We should study the stability of the
ice sheet. We need to understand what is going on,'' said Borns, who has
made countless trips to the Antarctic and even has a glacier there named
- Understanding what is going on was the
goal of the weeklong conference, sponsored by the American Geophysical
Union. It was the first time scientists from the United States and Europe
who are studying the ice sheet have come together to share their knowledge
and data. Scientists from the U.S., Britain, Norway, Germany and New Zealand
attended the conference. Only in the last decade have scientists from different
disciplines - geology, glaciology, metereology, computer science - come
together to look at the past and potential future of the West Antarctic
- Maine was chosen to host the landmark
meeting because of UM's Antarctic expertise - dozens of students and faculty
have been to the southern end of the world - and because Maine, like Antartica,
was once covered by ice. On Wednesday, the scientists boarded buses headed
Down East to see rock formations that were once covered by a massive ice
sheet. This helped them gain a better understanding of what is under the
West Antarctic Ice Sheet that they speculate is collapsing.
- UM's reputation as a center for Antarctic
study was well known among those who attended the conference, several of
whom graduated from the Orono campus.
- ''This is one of the fertile grounds,''
said Bob Bindschadler from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, co-host
of the conference. He said many of the world's most highly regarded Antarctic
researchers work at UM or are graduates of the university.
- Professor Borns pointed out that Maine
has long had a connection with Arctic research and exploration. Polar explorers
Robert Peary and Donald MacMillan were Bowdoin College graduates and both
lived in Maine after returning from the North Pole. Adm. Richard Byrd,
who was once believed to be the first man to reach the South Pole, summered
at Tunk Lake in Washington County and wrote many of his books there.
- As far as the current state of the West
Antarctic Ice Sheet is concerned, it is clear that much more work needs
to be done to determine if and how soon its demise might come. While some
at the conference warned that the ice sheet was disappearing at a rapid
rate, others said it was actually more stable than it has been in past
- ''It is premature to view these changes
as having dynamic significance,'' said Duncan Wingham, a professor with
the department of space and physics at University College London in England.
- Most agreed that changes in the ice sheet
account for a 1 millimeter rise in sea level per year.
- ''I'm less concerned about a big catastrophe,''
said NASA's Bindschadler. ''Nobody has seen evidence that that will happen.''
- ''The future holds regional partial collapses.
But when, how much and at what rate is not yet possible to quantify,''