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Massive Antarctic ice shelf at brink of breaking apart

21 January 2017
Massive Antarctic ice shelf at brink of breaking apart

Covering 5,000 square kilometres (1,900 square miles) and almost 100 storeys deep, the formation is poised to snap off from Larsen C ice shelf, creating "one of the largest icebergs ever recorded", the researchers said in a statement.

The break "will fundamentally change the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula", according to Project MIDAS, a British Antarctic research project that's tracking the crack.

"We can report a further extension of the rift which threatens to calve an iceberg measuring more than 5,000 square km in area from the Larsen C Ice Shelf", said Adrian Luckman of Swansea University in the UK.

A widening rift running the length of the finger-shaped, 350-metre (160-feet) -thick ice block grew 10 kilometres (six miles) longer some time during the last three weeks, satellite images revealed. Whether Larsen C will disintegrate as did Larsen B is yet to be seen. It is almost impossible to predict when the crack will reach the other sea point to fully detach from the ice shelf.

Scientists are not sure exactly when the iceberg will break free, but they think it will occur soon.

MIDAS says that once this calving happens, the remaining ice shelf will be less stable than it was before the rift formed.

"We expect that the iceberg will break free within the next few months, although it's hard to be certain about timing", Martin O'Leary, a researcher at Swansea University in the United Kingdom who studies the Larsen C Ice Shelf as part of the MIDAS team, told Mashable in an email on January 6. Total sea ice in that region of Antarctica moves clock-wise and it is very possible that the iceberg is moved to the area of the Southern Ocean. This has been happening in parts of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, but it is not guaranteed to happen with Larsen C.

The Larsen C ice shelf is following in the footsteps of Larsen B, which broke apart in 2002 after a similar rift caused a "calving" (breaking free of ice).

He added that this is a geographical and not a climate event.

Floating ice shelves don't raise sea levels when they disintegrate or lose large icebergs.

Ice shelves float on the sea, extending from the coast, and are slowly fed by glaciers from the ice sheet on land. It's that ice that would eventually raise sea levels, NASA scientist Thomas Wagner said. This process would likely take centuries, however, though sea level rise is already accelerating worldwide as glaciers melt and ocean temperatures increase.