Located along the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula is the Larsen Ice Shelf. Named after the Norwegian Captain who explored the ice front back in 1893, this ice shelf has been monitored for decades due to its close connection with rising global temperatures. Essentially, since the 1990s, the shelf has been breaking apart, causing collapses of considerable intensity.
According to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the section of the ice sheet known as the Larsen C Ice Shelf could be experiencing a collapse of its own soon enough. Based on video footage and satellite evidence of the sizeable rift (which is 457 m or 15oo ft across) in the shelf, it is believed that an ice berg that is roughly 5,000 km² (1930.5 mi²) in size could be breaking off and calving into the ocean in the near future.
An ice shelf is essentially a floating extension of a land-based glacier. In this case, the Larsen Ice Shelf is seaborne section of the larger Larsen Glacier, which flows southeast past Mount Larsen and enters the Ross Sea just south of Victoria Land. These shelves often act as buttresses, holding back glaciers that flow down to the coast, thus preventing them from entering the ocean and contributing to rising sea levels.
In the past twenty-two years, the Larsen A and B ice shelves (which were situated further north along the Antarctic Peninsula) both collapsed into the sea. This resulted in the dramatic acceleration of glaciers behind them, as larger volumes of ice were able to flow down the coast and drop into the ocean. While Larsen C appeared to still be stable, in November of 2016, NASA noted the presence of a large crack in its surface.
This crack was about 110 kilometers (68 mi) long and was more than 91 m (299 ft) wide, reaching a depth of about 500 m (1,600 ft). By December, the rift had extended another 21 km (13 mi), which raised concerns about calving. In February of 2017, satellite observations of the shelf noted that the crack appeared to have grown further, which confirmed what researches from the MIDAS project had previously reported.
This UK-based Antarctic research project – which is based at Swansea University and Aberystwyth University in Wales and supported by the BAS and various international partners – is dedicated to monitoring the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica. Through a combination of field work, satellite observations, and computer simulations, they have catalogued how recent warming trends has caused seasonal melts of the ice shelf and affected its structure.
And in recent years, they have been monitoring the large crack, which has been fast-moving, and noted the appearance of several elongations. It was during the current Antarctic field season that members of the project filmed what the crack looked like from the air. In previous surveys, the glaciology research team has conducted research on the ice shelf using seismic techniques to survey the seafloor beneath it.
However, this past season, they did not set up on the ice shelf itself for fear of a calving event. Instead, they made a series of trips to and from the UK’s Rothera Research Station aboard twin otter aircraft. During an outing to retrieve some of their science equipment, the crew noted how the crack looked from above and started filming. As you can see from the footage, the rift is very wide and extremely long.
What’s more, the team estimates that if an iceberg from this shelf breaks off and falls into the ocean, it will likely be over three times the size of cities like London or New York City. And while this sort of thing is common with glaciers, the collapse of a large section of Larsen C could speed the flow of the Larsen Glacier towards the Antarctic Ocean.
As Dr Paul Holland, an ice and ocean modeller at the British Antarctic Survey, said in a recent press release:
“Iceberg calving is a normal part of the glacier life cycle, and there is every chance that Larsen C will remain stable and this ice will regrow. However, it is also possible that this iceberg calving will leave Larsen C in an unstable configuration. If that happens, further iceberg calving could cause a retreat of Larsen C. We won’t be able to tell whether Larsen C is unstable until the iceberg has calved and we are able to understand the behavior of the remaining ice. The stability of ice shelves is important because they resist the flow of the grounded ice inland. After the collapse of Larsen B, its tributary glaciers accelerated, contributing to sea-level rise.”
One of the greatest concerns about climate change is the feedback mechanisms it creates. In addition to increased warming trends caused by rising levels of CO² in the atmosphere, the melting of glaciers and the breakup of ice shelves can have a pronounced effect on sea levels. In the end, the depletion of glaciers in Antarctica could have dramatic consequences for the rest of the planet.
Further Reading: British Antarctic Survey