“I don’t think there’s been a shelf collapse like this in East Antarctica since we’ve been able to get satellite data,” Rob Larter, a marine geophysicist with the British Antarctic Survey, told CNN. “Konger is a very small ice shelf that has been shrinking in size over the years, and this was just the latest step that caused it to collapse.”
Ice shelves such as Konger are extensions of terrestrial ice sheets and glaciers that protrude above the ocean. They help prevent ice from entering the ocean from these ice sheets.
Ted Scambos, glaciologist at the University of Colorado Boulder and a lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center said the ice shelf collapse was likely the culmination of record low sea ice levels and wave action that hit the shelf during a recent warm spell driven by strong winds from the warmer north.
Scambos said this could be a preview of what will happen as the climate crisis eats away at the continent.
“Antarctica as a whole was sort of locked in a refrigerator,” he told CNN. “They are accustomed to being surrounded by this strip of sea ice, they are accustomed to temperatures below freezing, so these are big steps in terms of the kind of energy or processes that can lead to the removal of ice. from the edge of the continent.
“And this is what happened in Conger – and this is an example of how Antarctica is responding to these record-breaking events.”
Scambos said that for a long time the ice shelf was pressed against the island with the same effect as putting too much pressure on a piece of wood that later starts to split. Scambos said that over time, large gaps formed due to this pressure.
Scambos said the Konger collapse is another case where scientists can observe what happens when an ice shelf is lost and the glacier is threatened.
“It’s not a very big shelf,” Scambos said. “But every time we see a shelf that hits an offshore island or even a bay, the glaciers behind it feel like there’s a back pressure, that there’s a force that resists the outward flow. In other words, they thin out quickly and they flow faster when the shelf is removed.”
Larter said warmer temperatures increase the likelihood of ice shelves collapsing. There have been a series of ice shelf collapses over the past 40 years, but they have mostly occurred in West Antarctica, which is warmer than the east.
Scambos told CNN they could see “massive cracks in this ice shelf, places where the ice is breaking,” a clear sign of Earth’s climate change.
Larter said this happens less frequently in East Antarctica because ocean water is much colder there.
“The trend in East Antarctica is that the ice sheet is losing some ice at the edges and gaining some in the middle,” Larter said. “In general, the balance is not upset, but some people on the outskirts are at a loss.”
The glacier that is getting scientists’ attention is the Totten Glacier, which could cause sea levels to rise by about 10 feet if its ice shelf collapses.
Scambos said the recent record events in Antarctica are further evidence of the speed at which the climate crisis is accelerating.
“This is something that is very difficult to stop once it starts,” he warned. “If we don’t slow down, if we don’t slow down this process, then we will see very rapid rates of sea level rise, probably before the end of the century.”
Scambos noted that children living right now will face these consequences.
“And while I won’t be around to see it, there are people with us today – they’re a little shorter than most of us – but they’ll be there for it,” Scambos added. “And that means we have an obligation to take care of it as soon as possible.”