According to Nature World Report, a new NASA study predicts that the Larsen B Ice Shelf, one of the largest sources of freshwater on the planet, is at a serious risk of breaking away from Antarctica and melting within the next five years. NASA cites climate change and the subsequent rapid warming of Earth’s poles as the main factor in the ice shelf’s inevitable disappearance.
A large section of Antarctica’s Larsen B ice shelf partially collapsed in 2002, and has since been rapidly weakening, melting, and fragmenting. Two of the ice shelf’s tributary glaciers are flowing and thinning faster than ever before. These ice shelves provide the last barrier between the glaciers and the open ocean, and once they are too weak to hold glaciers back, scientists expect that ice melting will pass a point of no return shortly thereafter.
According to Ala Khazendar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, “These are warning signs that the remnant is disintegrating. Although it’s fascinating scientifically to have a front-row seat to watch the ice shelf becoming unstable and breaking up, it’s bad news for our planet. This ice shelf has existed for at least 10,000 years, and soon it will be gone.” The news is not specific to the Larsen B ice shelf, however. Just last week, a similar report was issued for the neighboring Larsen C ice shelf. Clearly, this is not an isolated problem, but one facing all of the ice shelves on the continent of Antarctica.
Ice shelves are crucial to maintaining global sea level and climate patterns because they corral the flow of glaciers further up on the continent. If these glaciers could reach the open ocean, they would add millions of gallons of fresh water, which would cause sea level rise. This leads to coastal erosion, destruction of coastal property, saltwater intrusion, and whole range of other serious problems for people living by the ocean.
The Larsen B remnant is located on the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, and is about 625 square miles and almost 1,650 feet thick. Khazendar was struck by how quickly the changes to the ice shelf are occurring – the Leppard and Flask tributary glaciers have both thinned up to 75 feet, and only continue to accelerate. The glaciers are also picking up speed, accelerating toward the ocean by more than 36 percent since 2012.
Climate change is the primary driver of the melting ice in Antarctica, and the trends don’t appear likely to reverse anytime soon. Both major polar ice caps are expected to disappear completely within the next 100 years, and the consequences could be dire and far-reaching.