Ocean-floor sediments drilled from Antarctic regions recently covered by ice shelves suggest that those shelves were only 2,000 years old. This finding could compel scientists to reassess whether the current destruction of polar ice is due primarily to human-caused global warming.
In the early 1990s, part of the ice shelf atop the Prince Gustav Channel, which separates the Antarctic peninsula and James Ross Island, broke apart. In the area formerly covered by the shelf, the channel's water depth is between 600 and 800 meters. Scientists collected sediment cores 5 to 6 m in length from the ocean floor in February and March 2000.
Scattered throughout the seafloor ooze were telling grains of rock, says Carol J. Pudsey, a geologist with the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, England. She and her colleague Jeffrey Evans separated the grains larger than about 1 millimeter from the smaller particles, which may have been washed into the area by ocean currents.
They found that some of the flecks and pebbles had been scraped from James Ross Island and the Antarctic mainland by the glaciers that fed the ice shelf. However, other grains and pebbles didn't match the types of rock in nearby sources and could only have been carried into Prince Gustav Channel by far-traveling icebergs. Those bergs, in turn, would have dropped their sedimentary burden in the channel only if the ice shelf was absent during at least part of the year.
By carbon-dating the organic material found in sediment layers rich in large grains, the researchers could determine when icebergs had wafted into the channel. Their analysis suggests that from about 2,000 to 5,000 years ago, much of the channel was seasonally open water. In areas where sediments had
accumulated slowly, cores included berg-delivered material from as much as 30,000 years ago, Pudsey notes. She and Evans report their findings in the September GEOLOGY. …