Sudden collapse of Antarctic ice shelf could be a sign of disaster to come

(ORDO NEWS) — The massive Antarctic ice shelf, covering an area the size of New York or Rome, has just collapsed into the ocean.

Scientists warn that while they do not expect significant impact from this event, melting ice in this historically stable region could be a harbinger of things to come.

Satellite photos show the sudden disappearance of the Konger Ice Shelf in East Antarctica between March 14 and 16.

“The Glenzer Conger Ice Shelf has supposedly been there for thousands of years and will never appear again,” University of Minnesota glaciologist Peter Neff told NPR. Although the shelf has been slowly shrinking since the 1970s, the recently accelerated melt preceded the sudden and unexpected breakup this month.

Antarctica is divided into East and West Antarctica, the two halves are separated by the Transantarctic mountain range. In West Antarctica, the ice is more unstable than in the east, so there is often ice melting and the destruction of ice shelves.

However, East Antarctica is one of the coldest and driest places on planet Earth, and so the collapse of ice shelves there is unheard of. According to AP, this is the first major collapse of the ice shelf in East Antarctica in the history of mankind.

The collapse of the ice shelf occurred at a time of unseasonably high temperatures in the region. Concordia Station, an Antarctic research center located on the eastern side of the continent, recorded a temperature of 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 11.8 degrees Celsius) on March 18, the warmest temperature ever recorded in March at this station.

This temperature is more than 72 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) warmer than the seasonal averages.

These unseasonably high temperatures are the result of an “atmospheric river,” which is a swirl of warm, moist air trapping heat over the region, according to a report by The Guardian. Some of this moisture even fell as rain.

Much of the heat from the atmospheric river was likely absorbed by the water beneath the Konger ice shelf. NASA planetary scientist Katherine Colello Walker suggested on Twitter that heat brought in by a recent atmospheric river contributed to the sudden collapse of the shelf.

Although a major collapse occurred on March 15, it was only the second of three “collapses” that occurred in the region this month, Helen Amanda Fricker, professor of glaciology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, tweeted.

Fricker said ice shelf “birth” events, so named because they give birth to icebergs, are part of the natural life cycle of an ice shelf. With the coincidence of unseasonal heat, scientists need to explore the possibility of a link to climate change.

Several icebergs were formed as a result of the ice shelf formation process that began on March 7, according to the US National Ice Center. One of them, named C-37, is 8 nautical miles long and 3 nautical miles wide (14.8 by 5.6 km).

While scientists do not expect any major consequences from the destruction of the Konger ice shelf, they warn that it could be the start of a worrying trend.

The ice shelves act as a buffer against melting Antarctic glaciers, Neff said, as they insulate the glaciers from warm seawater. If the glaciers in East Antarctica melt, they could be a major contributor to sea level rise in the coming decades.

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