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Massive Ice Shelf About to Break Away From Antarctic Coast

A massive ice shelf anchored to the Antarctic coast by a narrow and quickly deteriorating ice bridge could break away soon, the European Space Agency warned Friday.

The Paris-based agency said satellite images show the bridge that connects the Wilkins Ice Shelf to Charcot and Latady Islands "looks set to collapse."

"The beginning of what appears to be the demise of the ice bridge began this week when new rifts" appeared and a large block of ice broke away, it said.

The Wilkins Ice Shelf — which like the rest of Antarctic's ice sheet "was formed by thousands of years of accumulated and compacted snow" — had been stable for most of the last century before it began retreating in the 1990s, the statement said.

The shelf, which was originally the size of Jamaica or Connecticut, is located on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, which thrusts up from the continent toward the southern tip of South America.

Originally covering about 5,000 square miles, the ice shelf lost 14 percent of its mass last year alone, the statement quotes a scientist Angelika Humbert of Germany's Munster University as saying.

In two 2008 incidents, large chunks of the ice bridge fell away, shaving it down to just 985 yards across at its narrowest, the statement said.

As a result, "In the past months, we have observed the ice bridge deforming and its narrowest location acting as a kind of hinge," Humbert is quoted as saying.

Scientist are examining whether global warming is behind the shelf's breakup, the statement said. Average temperatures in the Antarctic Peninsula have risen by 3.8 degrees Farenheit over the past half century, the statement said — higher than the average global rise.