Published: Mon, January 09, 2017
Sci-tech | By Jose Becker

Antarctica: Massive iceberg poised to break off Larsen C Ice Shelf

Antarctica: Massive iceberg poised to break off Larsen C Ice Shelf

It is the fourth largest ice shelf in Antarctica, although nothing compared with the two largest, the Ross and Ronne-Filchner ice shelves.

An iceberg, one of the 10 largest known to science, is about to break away from Antarctica.

"After a few months of steady, incremental advance since the last event, the rift grew suddenly by a further 18 kilometers [about 11 miles] during the second half of December 2016".

A deep rift in western Antarctica will soon split through an ice shelf, breaking off an iceberg roughly the size of Prince Edward Island, researchers say.

"If it doesn't go in the next few months, I'll be amazed", said Adrian Luckman, a professor at Swansea University and a project leader on the team tracking the event, told BBC News.

Previous research has also documented that the Larsen C ice shelf is becoming less thick, and so floating lower in the water.

The Antarctic continent is ringed with ice shelves, which are the ocean-front portions of larger glaciers.

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Other shelves have broken away from the Antarctic Peninsula - Larsen A ice shelf in 1995 and the Larsen B in 2002.

The entire Larsen C ice shelf - one about twice the size of Hawaii - is not due to collapse, but this crack will cleave off about 10 percent of it. This is simply the natural way in which ice is removed from the shelf.

Ice shelves are permanent floating sheets of ice that connect to a landmass, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The crack is now about 60 miles long (97 kilometers) and about 300 feet wide (100 meters).

If it grows another dozen miles, a Delaware-sized iceberg could break off and float away.

The researchers believe the whole stability of the area can be affected by the iceberg: "The calving of this large iceberg could be the first step of the collapse of Larsen C ice shelf, which would result in the disintegration of a huge area of ice into a number of icebergs and smaller fragments", said David Vaughan from the British Antarctic Survey. As the shelf shrinks, these glaciers could flow more quickly - which would contribute to rising sea levels. This appears tied to the warming of the Antarctic Peninsula in recent decades.

Scientists are anxious about the break-off's impact to the its neighbor, Larsen B.

"I think in terms of the impact that the iceberg has on the ocean, it's a very spectacular event but its not going to be a huge thing in itself - the iceberg is big but the oceans are a lot bigger", O'Leary added. Because if this iceberg breaks off, it's bad news from the rest of Antarctica. If a chunk of ice that big did drop into the sea, it would raise sea levels about one-sixteenth of an inch, he said. This process would likely take centuries, however, though sea level rise is already accelerating worldwide as glaciers melt and ocean temperatures increase.

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