The collapse of the Larsen C ice shelf could trigger a chain reaction leading to almost 10 centimetres of sea level rise.
On the tip of the Antarctic continent, a disaster is waiting to happen.
For the past few years, a crack has been forming in the Larsen Ice Shelf. Over the past few months this crack has been getting closer to the shore, and over the past week it jumped 17,7 kilometre. This means that an iceberg the size of Long Island could be days away from falling into the sea.
The crack in the Larsen C shelf was first spotted in 2010, and took until 2016 to double in length. The growth of the crack has been accelerating during the last year, culminating in the 17,7 kilometre of growth over the past few days. The crack now lies a mere 12,8 kilometres from the sea. When the crack in the Larsen shelf finally reaches the shore, it will send a sheet of ice almost 6 000 square kilometres wide and 350 metres thick into the ocean.
How big is the Larson C ice shelf?
Ice shelves break—or “calve”—all the time, so the crack in the Larsen C shelf isn’t something new. It is much larger than average, but the primary concern stems from the kilometres of ice behind it. Ice shelves are the floating fronts of much larger ice sheets or glaciers, and because these ice sheets are currently on land they have yet to effect sea level rise.
Increasing temperatures and climate change have turned otherwise stable ice sheets into ticking time bombs, and any ice shelf collapse can set them off. The few thousand square kilometres of floating ice about to break off the Larsen shelf are the only thing standing between the inland ice sheet and the warm ocean water, and when this chunk of ice breaks it could cause a chain reaction that ultimately raises sea levels by up to 10 centimetres.
This article was originally written for and published by Popular Mechanics USA.