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April 10, 2009

Antarctica Rips As Delegates Convene


Prelude to a fall: In March 2008, a chunk seven times the size of Manhattan broke off Antarctica, putting the rest of the Wilkins Ice Shelf in jeopardy of a collapse.

by Sara Tucker

When a large chunk of ice makes news, it's almost never a good thing. There was the 18-inch blob that fell from the sky above Tampa, Florida, on a Sunday morning and landed on a Ford Mustang, the 50-pound boulder that hurtled out of the blue two summers ago and smashed through an Iowa roof, and the airborne lump that crashed through a Pennsylvania house last October and bounced off a sleeping occupant's forehead. Not to mention the 200-pound Goliath that landed in a vacant lot in Oakland.

The latest chunk of ice to make headlines is the size of Connecticut. The Wilkins Ice Shelf, which scientists, navigators, and bloggers have been watching closely for the past year, collapsed over the weekend, detaching itself from the Antarctic Peninsula just as diplomats from 47 countries convened in Baltimore to discuss issues affecting the polar region. Topping the list is tourism.

Tourist visits to Antarctica have risen from 6,700 in the 1992-93 season to 45,213 last year, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, and the U.S. wants to impose mandatory restrictions, a move that some tour operators welcome and others oppose. Australia's Courier-Mail reports that one of the naysayers is GAP Adventures, owner of the cruise ship that sank in 2007 after colliding with an iceberg. Company exec Bruce Poon Tip claims the tour industry is doing an adequate job of regulating itself in Antarctica and doesn't need government help. (Sound familiar?)

Nobody knows why large chunks of falling ice, dubbed megacryometeors, are pelting our planet. ("Are they real?" asks one blogger. "Are they from God? Are they a consequence of 'Global Warming'?") On the other hand, the scientific community has little doubt about what's causing Antarctica's ice to collapse. The tougher question is what to do about it.

Further reading:
* Antarctic sinking raises safety, environment issues (Chicago Tribune, December 2007)
* U.S. bid to cap Antarctic tourism "unfair," says explorer (The Australian, April 2009)
* Cruise West announces a chilling new destination for 2010 (Cruise Industry News, February 2009)
* The Aggregator: News of the week in links

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