A Lengthening Crack Threatens Antarctica’s Fourth Largest Ice Shelf

August 23, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

ice shelf
Photo credit: NASA/Dick Ewers

It’s just a matter of time.

A crack has been carving its way through a crisp ice sheet — the fourth largest ice shelf in Antarctica, called Larsen C — for several years.

The ice shelf, which is slightly smaller than Scotland and 350 meters (1,148 feet) thick, floats atop the ocean.

Researchers from Project MIDAS, a British Antarctic Survey, have been keeping tabs on the progress of the crack for some time. Between 2011 and 2015, it spread 30 kilometers (18.6 miles), but in just the past five months, it has picked up its pace, growing an additional 22 kilometers (13.7 miles), and bringing its total length to 130 kilometers (80 miles).

“As this rift continues to extend, it will eventually cause a large section of the ice shelf to break away as an iceberg,” Project MIDAS researchers report.

They previously showed that this ‘calving event’ would remove between 9 and 12 percent of the ice shelf, and their computer models suggest that following the break, the remaining chunk of ice could become unstable and disintegrate.

This is exactly what happened to Larsen C’s neighbor, Larsen B, which “splintered and collapsed” back in 2002 following a similar calving event. Prior to its breakup, Larsen B had likely been around “since the end of the last major glaciation 12,000 years ago,” the National Snow & Ice Data Center noted.

According to the Center, the rapid breakup of ice shelves seen in recent years, in both the Arctic and Antarctic, may be attributed to a combination of warmer air temperatures, which melt the ice surface, and warmer waters, which melt the ice shelf from below, making it vulnerable to cracking.

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