Ross Ice Shelf

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Coordinates: 81°30′S175°00′W / 81.500°S 175.000°W / -81.500; -175.000


Ross Ice Shelf situated between Marie Byrd Land and Victoria Land Map-antarctica-ross-ice-shelf-red-x.png
Ross Ice Shelf situated between Marie Byrd Land and Victoria Land

The Ross Ice Shelf is the largest ice shelf of Antarctica (as of 2013 an area of roughly 500,809 square kilometres (193,363 sq mi) [1] and about 800 kilometres (500 mi) across: about the size of France). [2] It is several hundred metres thick. The nearly vertical ice front to the open sea is more than 600 kilometres (370 mi) long, and between 15 and 50 metres (50 and 160 ft) high above the water surface. [3] Ninety percent of the floating ice, however, is below the water surface.

Most of Ross Ice Shelf is in the Ross Dependency claimed by New Zealand. It floats in, and covers, a large southern portion of the Ross Sea and the entire Roosevelt Island located in the west of the Ross Sea.

The ice shelf is named after Sir James Clark Ross, who discovered it on 28 January 1841. It was originally called "The Barrier", with various adjectives including "Great Ice Barrier", as it prevented sailing further south. Ross mapped the ice front eastward to 160° W. In 1947, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names applied the name "Ross Shelf Ice" to this feature and published it in the original U.S. Antarctic Gazetteer. In January 1953, the name was changed to "Ross Ice Shelf"; that name was published in 1956. [4] [5]


Crevasse, Ross Ice Shelf in 2001. Ross ice shelf.jpg
Crevasse, Ross Ice Shelf in 2001.

On 5 January 1841, the British Admiralty's Ross expedition in the Erebus and the Terror , three-masted ships with specially strengthened wooden hulls, was going through the pack ice of the Pacific near Antarctica in an attempt to determine the position of the South Magnetic Pole. Four days later, they found their way into open water and were hoping that they would have a clear passage to their destination. But on 11 January, the men were faced with an enormous mass of ice.

Sir James Clark Ross, the expedition's commander, remarked: "Well, there's no more chance of sailing through that than through the cliffs of Dover". Ross, who in 1831 had located the North Magnetic Pole, spent the next two years vainly searching for a sea passage to the South Pole; later, his name was given to the ice shelf and the sea surrounding it. Two volcanoes in the region were named by Ross for his vessels. [6]

For late Antarctic explorers seeking to reach the South Pole, the Ross Ice Shelf became a starting area. In a first exploration of the area by the Discovery Expedition in 1901–1904, Robert Falcon Scott made a significant study of the shelf and its surroundings from his expedition's base on Ross Island. By measurement of calved ice bergs and their buoyancy, he estimated the ice sheet to be on average 274 meters thick; the undisturbed morphology of the ice sheet and its inverted temperature profile led him to conclude it was floating on water; and measurements in 1902-1903 showed it had advanced 555 meters northwards in 13.5 months. [7] The findings were presented at a lecture entitled "Universitas Antarctica!" given 7 June 1911 and were published in the account of Scott's second expedition (the Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-1913). [8]

"The mystic Barrier" at Bay of Whales, near where Amundsen first encountered it
Note humans for size comparison (dark spots next to the large chunk of sea ice at left image border) WhalesBayIceShelf.jpg
"The mystic Barrier" at Bay of Whales, near where Amundsen first encountered it
Note humans for size comparison (dark spots next to the large chunk of sea ice at left image border)

Ernest Shackleton's southern party (Shackleton, Adams, Marshal, Wild) of the 1908 Nimrod expedition were the first humans to cross the Ice Shelf during its failed attempt to reach the South Pole. Both Roald Amundsen and Scott crossed the shelf to reach the Pole in 1911. Amundsen wrote: "Along its outer edge the Barrier shows an even, flat surface; but here, inside the bay, the conditions were entirely different. Even from the deck of the Fram we were able to observe great disturbances of the surface in every direction; huge ridges with hollows between them extended on all sides. The greatest elevation lay to the south in the form of a lofty, arched ridge, which we took to be about 500 feet [150 m] high on the horizon. But it might be assumed that this ridge continued to rise beyond the range of vision".

The next day, the party made its first steps on the Barrier. "After half an hour’s march we were already at the first important pointthe connection between the sea-ice and the Barrier. This connection had always haunted our brains. What would it be like? A high, perpendicular face of ice, up which we should have to haul our things laboriously with the help of tackles? Or a great and dangerous fissure, which we should not be able to cross without going a long way round? We naturally expected something of the sort. This mighty and terrible monster would, of course, offer resistance in some form or other," he wrote.

"The mystic Barrier! All accounts without exception, from the days of Ross to the present time, had spoken of this remarkable natural formation with apprehensive awe. It was as though one could always read between the lines the same sentence: 'Hush, be quiet! the mystic Barrier!'

"One, two, three, and a little jump, and the Barrier was surmounted!" [9]

Composition and movement

Ross Ice Shelf edge in 1997 Ross Ice Shelf 1997.jpg
Ross Ice Shelf edge in 1997

Ice shelves are thick plates of ice, formed continuously by glaciers, that float atop an ocean. The presence of the shelves acts as "brakes" for the glaciers. These shelves serve another important purpose -- "they moderate the amount of melting that occurs on the glaciers' surfaces. Once their ice shelves are removed, the glaciers increase in speed due to meltwater percolation and/or a reduction of braking forces, and they may begin to dump more ice into the ocean than they gather as snow in their catchments. Glacier ice speed increases are already observed in Peninsula areas where ice shelves disintegrated in prior years." [10]

The Ross Ice Shelf is one of many such shelves. It reaches into Antarctica from the north, and covers an area of about 520,000 km2 (200,000 sq mi), nearly the size of France. [2] [3] The ice mass is about 800 km (500 mi) wide and 970 km (600 mi) long. In some places, namely its southern areas, the ice shelf can be almost 750 m (2,450 ft) thick. The Ross Ice Shelf pushes out into the sea at between 1.5 and 3 m (5 and 10 ft) a day. Other glaciers gradually add bulk to it. At the same time, the freezing of seawater below the ice mass increases the thickness of the ice from 40 to 50 cm (16 to 20 in)[ when? ]. Sometimes, fissures and cracks may cause part of the shelf to break off; the largest known is about 31,000 km2 (12,000 sq mi), that is, slightly larger than Belgium. [11] Iceberg B-15, the world's largest recorded iceberg, was calved from the Ross Ice Shelf during March 2000.

Scientists have long been intrigued by the shelf and its composition. Many scientific teams researching the Antarctic have made camps on or adjacent to the Ross Ice Shelf. This includes McMurdo Station. [12] One major effort was a series of studies conducted in 1957 and 1958, which were continued during the 1960–61 season. The efforts involved an international team of scientists. Some parties explored the glaciers and others the valleys on the ice shelf. [13]

From 1967 to 1972 the Scott Polar Research Institute reported extensive observations using radio echo sounding. The technique allowed measurements to be taken from the air; allowing a criss cross track of 35,000 km to be covered; compared with a 3,000 km track from previous seismic sounding on the ground. [14] More detailed surveys were executed between 1973 and 1978.

A significant scientific endeavor called the Ross Ice Shelf Project was launched with a plan of drilling into the shelf to sample the biomass in the area and make other determinations about the shelf and its relationship to the sea floor. The project included surface glaciological observations as well as drilling, and the glaciological portion started during the planning phase of the drilling. [15] The drilling portion of the project was to have begun during 1974, but the actual drilling was delayed until 1976. Finally, in 1977, the scientists were able to drill successfully through the ice, making a hole that could be sampled every few days for three weeks. The team was able to map the sea floor, study the tides, and assess the fish and various other forms of life in the waters. The team also examined the oceanographic and geological conditions as well as the temperature of the ice. They estimated that the base of the shelf was −2.16° Celsius (27.3 °F). They also made other calculations about the fluctuations of the temperatures. [12]

The results of these various projects were published in a series of reports in the 2 February 1979 issue of Science . [12]

During the 1980s, a network of weather stations was installed to record temperatures on the shelf and throughout the more remote parts of the continent. [16]

Glacier-ice shelf interactions Glacier-ice shelf interactions.svg
Glacier-ice shelf interactions

University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center has been studying ice shelves and, in 2002, announced that, based on several breakups of ice shelves, including Larsen B, has begun to reassess their stability. Their scientists stated that the temperature of the warmest portion of the shelf is "only a few degrees too cool in summer presently to undergo the same kind of retreat process. The Ross Ice Shelf is the main outlet for several major glaciers draining the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which contains the equivalent of 5 m of sea level rise in its above-sea-level ice." The report added that observations of "iceberg calving" on the Ross Ice Shelf are, in their opinion, unrelated to its stability. [10]

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Ross ice shelf in red, other ice shelves in different colors (Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf in blue for example) Antarctica ice shelves.svg
  Ross ice shelf in red, other ice shelves in different colors (Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf in blue for example)

Scientific exploration continues to uncover interesting information and the analyses have resulted in some interesting theories being posited and publicized. One such opinion, given in 2006 based on a geological survey, suggested that the ice shelf had collapsed previously, perhaps suddenly, which could well happen again. [17]

Main drill site for the New Zealand 2017 hot water drill camp on the Ross Ice Shelf NZ Ross Ice Shelf Hotwater Tent.jpg
Main drill site for the New Zealand 2017 hot water drill camp on the Ross Ice Shelf

A science team from New Zealand installed a camp in the centre of the shelf in late 2017. The expedition was led by glaciologist Christina Hulbe [18] and brought together oceanographers, glaciologists, biologists and sedimentologists to examine the ice, ocean and sediment in the central shelf region. One of the key findings was that the ice in the region was re-freezing. [19] This re-freezing and growth of an ice shelf is not uncommon but the Ross Ice Shelf situation appeared to be very variable as there was no evidence of long-term freezing. [20] A recent study attribute this variability in-part to tidal mixing. [21]

A second New Zealand expedition in 2019 traveled to the grounding line region of the Kamb Ice Stream. The hot water drill borehole at this site penetrated through over 500 m of snow and ice to an ocean cavity only 30 m deep at this location. [22] As well as sampling the ocean and sediment, it was the first deployment beneath the Ross Ice Shelf of the Remotely operated underwater vehicle Icefin developed at Georgia Tech, a vehicle designed around parameters suitable for exploration of the liquid cavities of places like Europa. [23]

See also

Related Research Articles

Iceberg A large piece of freshwater ice broken off a glacier or ice shelf and floating in open water

An iceberg is a large piece of freshwater ice that has broken off a glacier or an ice shelf and is floating freely in open (salt) water. Small bits of disintegrating icebergs are called "growlers" or "bergy bits".

Ross Sea A deep bay of the Southern Ocean in Antarctica

The Ross Sea is a deep bay of the Southern Ocean in Antarctica, between Victoria Land and Marie Byrd Land and within the Ross Embayment, and is the southernmost sea on Earth. It derives its name from the British explorer James Ross who visited this area in 1841. To the west of the sea lies Ross Island and Victoria Land, to the east Roosevelt Island and Edward VII Peninsula in Marie Byrd Land, while the southernmost part is covered by the Ross Ice Shelf, and is about 200 miles (320 km) from the South Pole. Its boundaries and area have been defined by the New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research as having an area of 637,000 square kilometres (246,000 sq mi).

Climate of Antarctica

The climate of Antarctica is the coldest on Earth. The continent is also extremely dry, averaging 166 mm (6.5 in) of precipitation per year. Snow rarely melts on most parts of the continent, and, after being compressed, becomes the glacier ice that makes up the ice sheet. Weather fronts rarely penetrate far into the continent, because of the katabatic winds. Most of Antarctica has an ice-cap climate with very cold, generally extremely dry weather.

Scott Base Antarctic base

Scott Base is a New Zealand Antarctic research facility located at Pram Point on Ross Island near Mount Erebus in New Zealand's Ross Dependency territorial claim. The research facility was named in honour of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, RN, leader of two British expeditions to the Ross Sea area of Antarctica. The base was set up as support to field research and the centre for research into earth sciences, and now conducts research in many fields, operated by Antarctica New Zealand.

Ice shelf Large floating platform of ice caused by glacier flowing onto ocean surface

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Transantarctic Mountains

The Transantarctic Mountains comprise a mountain range of uplifted rock in Antarctica which extend, with some interruptions, across the continent from Cape Adare in northern Victoria Land to Coats Land. These mountains divide East Antarctica and West Antarctica. They include a number of separately named mountain groups, which are often again subdivided into smaller ranges.

West Antarctic Ice Sheet

The Western Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is the segment of the continental ice sheet that covers West Antarctica, the portion of Antarctica on the side of the Transantarctic Mountains which lies in the Western Hemisphere. The WAIS is classified as a marine-based ice sheet, meaning that its bed lies well below sea level and its edges flow into floating ice shelves. The WAIS is bounded by the Ross Ice Shelf, the Ronne Ice Shelf, and outlet glaciers that drain into the Amundsen Sea.

Larsen Ice Shelf Ice shelf in Antarctica

The Larsen Ice Shelf is a long ice shelf in the northwest part of the Weddell Sea, extending along the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula from Cape Longing to Smith Peninsula. It is named for Captain Carl Anton Larsen, the master of the Norwegian whaling vessel Jason, who sailed along the ice front as far as 68°10' South during December 1893. In finer detail, the Larsen Ice Shelf is a series of shelves that occupy distinct embayments along the coast. From north to south, the segments are called Larsen A, Larsen B, and Larsen C by researchers who work in the area. Further south, Larsen D and the much smaller Larsen E, F and G are also named.

McMurdo Sound

McMurdo Sound and its ice-clogged waters extends about 55 kilometres (34 mi) long and wide. The sound connects the Ross Sea to the north with the Ross Ice Shelf cavity to the south via Haskell Strait. The strait is largely covered by the McMurdo Ice Shelf. The Royal Society Range rises from sea level to 4,205 metres (13,796 ft) on the western shoreline. Ross Island, an historic jumping-off point for polar explorers, designates the eastern boundary. The active volcano Mount Erebus at 3,794 metres (12,448 ft) dominates Ross Island. Antarctica's largest scientific base, the United States' McMurdo Station, as well as the New Zealand Scott Base are on the southern shore of the island. Less than 10 percent of McMurdo Sound's shoreline is free of ice. It is the southernmost navigable body of water in the world.

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Iceberg B-15 Largest recorded iceberg by area

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Drygalski Ice Tongue

The Drygalski Ice Tongue or Drygalski Barrier or Drygalski Glacier Tongue is a glacier in Antarctica, on the Scott Coast, in the northern McMurdo Sound of Antarctica's Ross Dependency, 240 kilometres (150 mi) north of Ross Island. The Drygalski Ice Tongue is stable by the standards of Antarctica's icefloes, and stretches 70 kilometres (43 mi) out to sea from the David Glacier, reaching the sea from a valley in the Prince Albert Mountains of Victoria Land. The Drygalski Ice Tongue ranges from 14 to 24 kilometres wide.

Amery Ice Shelf

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Pine Island Glacier

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Thwaites Glacier

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Nordenskjöld Coast Coast in Antarctica

The Nordenskjöld Coast is located on the Antarctic Peninsula, more specifically Graham Land, which is the top region of the Peninsula. The Peninsula is a thin, long ice sheet with an Alpine-style mountain chain. The coast consists of 15m tall ice cliffs with ice shelves.

Totten Glacier

Totten Glacier is a large glacier draining a major portion of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, through the Budd Coast of Wilkes Land in the Australian Antarctic Territory. The catchment drained by the glacier is estimated at 538,000 km2 (208,000 sq mi), extending approximately 1,100 km (680 mi) into the interior and holds the potential to raise sea level by at least 3.5 m (11 ft). Totten drains northeastward from the continental ice but turns northwestward at the coast where it terminates in a prominent tongue close east of Cape Waldron. It was first delineated from aerial photographs taken by USN Operation Highjump (1946–47), and named by Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names (US-ACAN) for George M. Totten, midshipman on USS Vincennes of the United States Exploring Expedition (1838–42), who assisted Lieutenant Charles Wilkes with correction of the survey data obtained by the expedition.

Erebus Ice Tongue

The Erebus Ice Tongue is a mountain outlet glacier and the seaward extension of Erebus Glacier from Ross Island. It projects 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) into McMurdo Sound from the Ross Island coastline near Cape Evans, Antarctica. The glacier tongue varies in thickness from 50 metres (160 ft) at the snout to 300 metres (980 ft) at the point where it is grounded on the shoreline. Explorers from Robert F. Scott's Discovery Expedition (1901–1904) named and charted the ice tongue.

Helen Amanda Fricker is a glaciologist and professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego where she is a director of the Scripps Polar Center. She won the 2010 Martha T. Muse Prize for Science and Policy in Antarctica.

Christina Hulbe American Antarctic researcher, educator

Christina Hulbe, an Antarctic researcher, as of 2016 serves as Professor and Dean of Surveying at the University of Otago in New Zealand. She was previously Chair of the Geology Department at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. She leads the NZARI project to drill through the Ross Ice Shelf and is the namesake of the Hulbe glacier.


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