Unlocking Antarctica's secrets: The Ross Ice Shelf

The Ross Ice Shelf
Robin Bell shared this picture of the research set-up on the Ross Ice Shelf. "Sometimes we work on top of the ice sheet, exploring hidden mountain ranges," Bell wrote.
Courtesy Robin Bell

Robin Bell spends a lot of her time on ice.

She's a research professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and she's been traveling to Antarctica regularly since she was a graduate student in the 1980s.

"Antarctica is full of places to still explore," Bell told MPR News host Kerri Miller. Her current project involves mapping the Ross Ice Shelf, which holds many secrets for scientists.

"Underneath the Ross Ice Shelf is the least-known piece of ocean floor on our planet. We know almost nothing about it, but it's the size of France," Bell said.

Understanding the Ross Ice Shelf is critical because it sits on the edge of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet, "the piece of ice that we think is one the most vulnerable ones on our planet, as the oceans and atmosphere warm." The shelf, Bell explained, is slowing the flow of ice into the ocean.

In the decades she has spent studying Antarctica, Bell has seen other ice shelves disappear. One shelf, which Bell described as the size of Rhode Island, disappeared in just a month.

"This giant piece of ice just crumbled into millions of little icebergs."

A small research plane in Antarctica
Robin Bell's team explores the Ross Ice Shelf by flying over the ice and using lasers and radar.
Courtesy Robin Bell

The changes in Antarctica's ice structures have ramifications for the entire world: Shifting and melting ice can trigger a dramatic rise in sea levels, which could result in massive flooding.

"West Antarctica is where there are somewhere between 15 and 20 feet of sea level stored in the ice that's there," Bell said. "How fast that ice sheet changes is going to be one the largest controls in how sea level goes up in the future."

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