Breaking Ice News: The 1950 Report on Global Warming

The Antarctic Peninsula’s Larsen C ice shelf was reduced in area by more than 12 percent in the last few days when a chunk of ice broke off, a phenomenon called calving. The newly-formed iceberg is one of the largest ever recorded — bigger than Delaware, at more than 2,200 square miles. The Saturday Evening Post reported on the thawing of the Antarctic ice shelves back in 1950, although scientists’ conjectures about the warming earth differed from current theories. Polar exploration was relatively new, but the results were coming in: “Considerable evidence that Antarctica is thawing out already exists. Not so long ago, the largest iceberg ever reported — 150 miles long — was seen drifting hundreds of miles north of the towering ice barrier that surrounds the continent. Over the years, polar expeditions have reported a steady shrinkage of the vast ice pack.”

Map of Larsen C (Project MIDAS) overlayed with thermal image (NASA)
Map of Larsen C (Project MIDAS) overlayed with thermal image (NASA)

Today, scientists are able to monitor the Antarctic with much more precision. Project MIDAS is a research team that has monitored the rift in the ice shelf for many years. Scientists on the team say that the calving event “puts the rest of the ice shelf in a very vulnerable position.” The rift-induced collapses of Larsen A in 1995 and Larsen B in 2002 provide models for the possible disintegration of Larsen C, which would compromise the Antarctic Peninsula. Project MIDAS says it will take years or decades for this to happen if it does.

The calving was monitored with satellite imaging for several months before scientists confirmed the iceberg broke off completely this morning. The rift cannot be directly attributed to rising global temperatures since iceberg calving is a natural event that has occurred for millions of years. However, according to the Times, “the breakup of ice shelves in the peninsula region may be a preview of what is in store for the main part of Antarctica as the world continues heating up as a result of human activity.”

The 1950 Saturday Evening Post report, “Is the World Getting Warmer?,” speculated that rising solar energy output was the cause of global warming — a nonpolitical term at the time. Greenhouse gases were not yet a commonly understood trigger for climate change, and quicker, more epic events were theorized: “Is the sun throwing out more heat, perhaps getting ready to explode and snuff out all life on earth in a matter of seconds?”

Scientists in 1950 were already monitoring the Antarctic ice shelves, although with much less accuracy and technology. Years of advancement and data have afforded scientists the ability to ascertain many irreversible effects of climate change, but a timeline for the fate of Antarctica — and of the Larsen C ice shelf — is still unclear. Today’s calving event may prove to be the tip of the iceberg for future collapse on the continent.