Reports of a massive and rapidly growing crack in an Antarctic ice shelf have proliferated over the past few months, occasionally puncturing the Trump news cycle with a fun little existential twist. Now, the New York Times reports that Antarctica’s fourth-largest ice shelf, evocatively named Larsen C, is approaching a “full break” after having grown 17 miles in just two months. What does this mean? I don’t know, bad stuff!
From the Times interactive report (like all their environmental reporting, it’s very cool—check it out):
The Larsen A and B ice shelves disintegrated in 1995 and 2002, though both were drastically smaller than Larsen C. Neither contributed significantly to global sea level rise, however, because they were already floating above water, and the glaciers behind them did not contain a substantial volume of ice.
According to Dr. Rignot, the collapse of Larsen C would add only a tiny amount of water to the global sea level. Of greater concern to scientists is how the collapse of ice shelves can affect the glaciers that flow behind them, because the melting of those glaciers can cause much higher levels of ocean rise. Scientists see the impending Larsen C collapse as a warning that much larger amounts of ice in West Antarctica could be vulnerable.
Ice shelves are an important aspect of the infrastructure of the Antarctic peninsula, and scientists aren’t really sure what the fuck is going to happen when one of the biggest icebergs ever recorded breaks off from Larsen C. In an article from last month, the Washington Post’s Chris Mooney reported that while some scientists don’t see cause for alarm, others feel more urgently—researchers with Project Midas published research suggesting the break “presents a considerable risk to the stability of the Larsen C Ice Shelf,” which would have dire implications:
Antarctica has lost ice shelves before, but not one so enormous. Not only would a loss of Larsen C change the map of the Earth itself; the shelf holds back glaciers capable of contributing about 4 inches of global sea level rise over time.
Don’t worry though, Larsen, we are absolutely on top of this issue.