Antarctic sea ice the size of New York is collapsing as the climate change crisis continues to hit


An ice shelf the size of New York has collapsed in East Antarctica, an area long thought to be stable and little affected by climate change, worried scientists said on Friday.

Satellite images show the 460-square-mile Conger Ice Shelf completely disintegrated into the ocean on or around March 15. The collapse marked the first time in human history that the glacial region had an ice shelf collapse.

Ice shelves, permanent floating patches of ice attached to land, take thousands of years to form and act as levees holding back snow and ice that would otherwise flow into the ocean, causing the rise seas.

The collapse came at the start of a monstrous heat spell last week when temperatures soared more than 40 degrees Celsius (70 Fahrenheit) hotter than normal in parts of East Antarctica.

An ice shelf the size of New York has collapsed in East Antarctica, an area long thought to be stable and little affected by climate change, worried scientists said on Friday.

Satellite images show the 460 square mile Conger Ice Shelf completely disintegrated into the ocean on or around March 15 (pictured)

Satellite images show the 460 square mile Conger Ice Shelf completely disintegrated into the ocean on or around March 15 (pictured)

The collapse, captured by satellite images, marked the first time in human history that the frigid region had an ice shelf collapse

The collapse, captured by satellite images, marked the first time in human history that the frigid region had an ice shelf collapse

The March heat wave was related to the atmospheric river phenomenon, said Peter Neff, a glaciologist at the University of Minnesota.

This process creates columns hundreds of miles long that carry water vapor from the tropics, creating an effect that Neff described as “a fire hose of moisture.”

Satellite photos show the area has shrunk rapidly over the past two years, and now scientists are wondering if they have overestimated East Antarctica’s stability and resilience to global warming that has rapidly melted the ice on the small west side and the vulnerable peninsula.

The ice shelf, about 460 square miles wide holding the Conger and Glenzer glaciers back from warmer water, collapsed between March 14 and 16, said ice specialist Catherine Walker of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

She said scientists have never seen this happen in this part of the continent, which makes her worrying.

“The Glenzer Conger Ice Shelf was probably there for thousands of years and it will never be there again,” Neff said.

The problem is not the amount of ice lost in this collapse, Neff and Walker said. It is negligible. It’s more about where it happened. Neff said he was concerned that previous assumptions about the stability of East Antarctica were not correct.

NASA's Modis satellite image of an Antarctic ice shelf taken March 21, 2022 in this handout image obtained March 25, 2022

NASA’s Modis satellite image of an Antarctic ice shelf taken March 21, 2022 in this handout image obtained March 25, 2022

And that’s important because if the frozen water in East Antarctica melted – and it’s a process lasting many millennia if not longer – it would raise seas around the world by more than 160 feet (50 meters). ).

That’s more than five times the ice of the more vulnerable West Antarctic Ice Sheet, where scientists have focused much of their research.

Surrounded by vast oceans and protected by winds that tend to shield it from large warm air intrusions, Antarctica is responding more slowly to climate change than the Arctic, which is warming three times faster than the rest of the world.

Over the past century, East Antarctica has barely warmed, but some regions have been affected and the continent has lost an average of 149 billion tonnes of ice per year from 2002 to 2020, according to NASA.

The loss of the Conger Ice Shelf is the latest example of the changes underway.

The collapse came at the start of a monstrous heat spell last week when temperatures soared more than 40 degrees Celsius (70 Fahrenheit) hotter than normal in parts of East Antarctica.

The collapse came at the start of a monstrous heat spell last week when temperatures soared more than 40 degrees Celsius (70 Fahrenheit) hotter than normal in parts of East Antarctica.

Helen Amanda Fricker, co-director of the Scripps Polar Center at the University of California, San Diego, said researchers need to spend more time examining the eastern part of the continent.

“East Antarctica is starting to change. There’s a loss of mass starting to happen,” Fricker said. “We need to know how stable each of the ice shelves are because once one disappears” it means the glaciers are melting into the warming water and “some of that water will come to San Diego and elsewhere”.

Scientists had seen this particular ice shelf – the closest to Australia – shrinking quite a bit since the 1970s, Neff said. Then in 2020, shelf ice loss accelerated to lose about half of itself every month or so, Walker said.

“We’re probably seeing the result of long-standing increased ocean warming there,” Walker said. ‘he’s just been melting and melting.’

Yet one expert thinks only part of East Antarctica is of concern.

“Most of East Antarctica is relatively safe, relatively invulnerable and some areas are vulnerable to it,” said British Antarctic Survey geophysicist Rob Larter.

“The overall effect of climate change around East Antarctica is that it’s chipping away at the edges of the ice sheets in some places, but it’s actually adding more snow in the middle.”

Over the past century, East Antarctica has barely warmed, but some regions have been affected and the continent has lost an average of 149 billion tonnes of ice per year from 2002 to 2020, according to NASA.

Over the past century, East Antarctica has barely warmed, but some regions have been affected and the continent has lost an average of 149 billion tonnes of ice per year from 2002 to 2020, according to NASA.

Last week, what is called an atmospheric river dumped a lot of warm air – and even rain instead of snow – on parts of East Antarctica, getting temperatures so much above normal that scientists have spent the last week discussing it.

The closest station to the collapsed ice shelf is Australia’s Casey Station, about 180 meters away and it reached 5.6 degrees Celsius, about 10 degrees Celsius higher than normal.

And that, says Walker, “is probably something like, you know, the last straw on the camel’s back.”

Fricker, who has explored another more stable ice shelf in East Antarctica, said an ice shelf there “is the calmest, most serene place you can imagine” .

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