Giant Ice Shelf Crumbling Faster than Expected



Antarctica’s monster Pine Island Glacier—one of many quickest melting glaciers on the continent—is giving local weather scientists new causes to fret.

The difficulty has to do with its ice shelf, a frozen ledge on the fringe of the Pine Island Glacier. The ice shelf helps stabilize and include the huge move of ice behind it.

However now it’s crumbling into items.

Within the final 5 years alone, greater than a fifth of the ice shelf has damaged away within the type of gigantic icebergs, which fall into the ocean and drift away.

On the identical time, the glacier has begun shedding ice at a quicker price. Since 2017, the pace of the ice flowing from the glacier into the ocean has accelerated by 12%.

These losses are summarized in a new examine, revealed Friday within the journal Science Advances.

The massive query is what is going to occur subsequent, in line with lead examine writer Ian Joughin, a glaciologist on the College of Washington. There’s an opportunity the ice shelf might stabilize and the move of ice will decelerate, or no less than cease rushing up.

Then once more, “the opposite state of affairs is that this course of will proceed and the shelf will crumble way more shortly than we anticipated,” he advised E&E Information.

Pine Island Glacier is a mammoth of the Antarctic ice sheet. Research recommend the glacier, positioned on the fringe of West Antarctica, adjoining to the Amundsen Sea, is pouring almost 60 billion tons of ice into the ocean every year. These losses have been rushing up since no less than the 1970s.

The ice shelf on the glacier’s edge—a type of floating ice ledge, jutting out into the ocean—is much like a cork in a bottle, Joughin mentioned. It helps stopper the move of all of the ice urgent in opposition to it from behind. The weaker the cork will get, the extra ice pours into the ocean, the place it contributes to rising international sea ranges.

Scientists have been already anxious about Pine Island Glacier. The ice shelf had been rising thinner lately, melted from the underside up by heat ocean waters seeping beneath the ice.

This course of—heat waters melting the ice from under—has been a rising drawback for glaciers alongside the coast of West Antarctica (Climatewire, April 10, 2018). The water itself seems to be coming from heat currents effervescent up from the deep sea close to the Antarctic shore. Consultants imagine altering wind patterns within the Southern Hemisphere—possible altered partly by local weather change—are serving to drive these heat currents as much as the sting of the ice.


As Pine Island’s ice shelf thinned and weakened, the move of ice started to hurry up in “matches and begins,” in line with the researchers. It will speed up quickly for a number of years, then settle down for a number of years. Between 2009 and 2017, the move of ice was comparatively steady.

That modified about 5 years in the past, when the ice shelf started to shed icebergs with better frequency, a few of them a number of miles lengthy. Final yr, the glacier misplaced a bit twice the scale of Washington, D.C.

The scientists imagine uneven pace within the glacier’s move over the previous few a long time is no less than partly responsible. Over time, cracks and rifts began appearing within the ice. Beginning in 2017, the shelf started to quickly crumble.

For now, scientists aren’t certain whether or not the shelf will proceed to interrupt aside on the pace it’s been crumbling the previous few years. It’s an exceptionally tough course of to simulate in fashions, Joughin mentioned.

Fortunately, satellites are serving to scientists preserve shut tabs on the glacier. The European House Company produces new photographs of the positioning each six days.

If the shelf continues to disintegrate, it’s attainable the move of ice might pace up extra dramatically—maybe doubling or tripling, Joughin famous. It’s an alarming chance; Pine Island Glacier already accounts for greater than 1 / 4 of Antarctica’s contributions to sea-level rise over the previous few a long time.

However there’s nonetheless an excessive amount of uncertainty to say how possible that state of affairs is.

“It’s somewhat little bit of a protracted shot that the shelf’s gonna crumble, but it surely’s not a lot of a protracted shot,” Joughin mentioned. “I actually hate to make a robust prediction both approach which is gonna occur.”

Reprinted from E&E Information with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E Information gives important information for power and surroundings professionals.


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