(ORDO NEWS) — A huge Antarctic ice shelf that covered an area the size of New York or Rome collapsed into the ocean in March 2022.
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. And they are not happy.
Temperatures in Antarctica are now more than 40 degrees warmer than the average for the season.
Satellite photos show the sudden disappearance of the Conger Ice Shelf in East Antarctica between March 14 and 16.
“The Glenzer Konger Ice Shelf appears to have been there for thousands of years and will never appear again,” University of Minnesota glaciologist Peter Neff said in a statement. While the ice shelf has been slowly shrinking since the 1970s, accelerated melt preceded the sudden and unexpected collapse this month.
Antarctica is divided into East and West, and the Transantarctic Mountain Range separates the two halves. In West Antarctica, the ice is less stable than in the east, so ice melt and ice shelves collapse frequently.
However, East Antarctica is one of the coldest and driest places on planet Earth, and because of this, the collapse of ice shelves is rare here. This is the first major ice shelf collapse in East Antarctica in human history.
Why did he collapse?
This glacier collapse occurred at a time of unusually high temperatures in the region. Concordia Station, an Antarctic research center located on the eastern side of the continent, reported a temperature of minus 11.8 degrees Celsius on March 18, the highest temperature ever recorded at the station in March. It is more than 40 degrees higher than the average for the season.
These unusually high temperatures are the result of an “atmospheric river,” which is a swirl of warm, moist air that traps heat over a region. Some of this moisture even fell as rain.
Much of the atmospheric river’s heat was likely absorbed by the water beneath the Konger Ice Shelf. NASA planetary scientist Katherine Colello Walker has suggested that the heat brought in by a recent atmospheric “draft” contributed to the sudden collapse of the shelf.
What does it threaten?
According to Helen Amanda Fricker, professor of glaciology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, this was only the second of three collapses in the region this month, with a major collapse occurring on March 15. Fricker said the destruction is part of the natural life cycle of the ice shelf.
The collapse of the ice shelf, which began on March 7, resulted in the formation of several icebergs, according to the US National Ice Center. One of them, called C-37, measures 14.8 by 5.6 km.
While scientists do not expect any major consequences from the collapse of the Konger Ice Shelf, they warn that it could be the start of a worrying trend.
According to Neff, the ice shelves act as a buffer to protect inland glaciers as they isolate them from warm seawater. If glaciers in East Antarctica continue to melt, they could be the main cause of sea level rise in the coming decades.
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