Scientists are predicting that a massive iceberg, 2,000 square miles in area and roughly the size of Delaware, will soon break off of Antarctica, floating into the Weddell Sea near the tip of South America. A crack in the Larsen C ice shelf has been extending for months, reaching a length of more than 100 miles. A recent update from scientists at NASA and the University of California found only three miles of ice still connecting the iceberg to the rest of the ice shelf.
Portions of the iceberg have already detached, and are moving into the sea, expanding the crack and leaving the rest “strained near to breaking point,” according to Adrian Luckman, a scientist monitoring the ice shelf at Swansea University in Wales.
The iceberg itself will not affect global sea level, since it is already floating in the ocean. However, some scientists believe it could contribute to the destabilization of the rest of the Larsen C ice shelf.
The iceberg will be one of the largest ever seen from Antarctica, at over 600 feet thick, and with roughly 1 trillion tons of ice, according to the European Space Agency and Noel Gourmelen, a University of Edinburgh scientist.
When it comes to the role of climate change in the development of this crack, scientists are divided. According to some, there is no evidence that the event is a result of advancing climate change. Ice shelves do indeed break off as a natural occurrence.
According to Helen Amanda Fricker, an Antarctic scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography:
“We do not need to press the panic button for Larsen C. Large calving events such as this are normal processes of a healthy ice sheet, ones that have occurred for decades, centuries, millennia — on cycles that are much longer than a human or satellite lifetime.”
However, some researchers disagree. Eric Rignot, an Antarctica expert with NASA and the University of California, said “Of course this is due to climate warming in the peninsula.”
The continent has seen an increase in in ice shelf breaks in recent years. The Larsen A shelf, at a warmer latitude, collapsed in 1995. Just slightly further south, the Larsen B shelf collapsed in 2002. Now, even further south at a colder latitude, the Larsen C shelf is collapsing. Its surface has been getting lower in the water, suggesting it could be melting from below.
The progress will be watched closely by scientists trying to learn about what to expect from other ice shelves in Antarctica.
According to NASA’s Tom Wagner, director of their polar programs:
“While it might not be caused by global warming, it’s at least a natural laboratory to study how breakups will occur at other ice shelves to improve the theoretical basis for our projections of future sea-level rise.”