The Conger Ice Shelf collapses in East Antarctica, a first

For the first time since satellites began observing Antarctica nearly half a century ago, an ice shelf has collapsed in the eastern part...


For the first time since satellites began observing Antarctica nearly half a century ago, an ice shelf has collapsed in the eastern part of the continent, scientists have said.

The collapse of the 450 square mile Conger Ice Shelf in a part of the continent called Wilkes Land occurred in mid-March. It was first spotted by scientists from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and appeared in satellite images taken on March 17, according to the National Ice Center in the US.

Ice shelves are floating tongues of ice at the ends of glaciers that, in Antarctica, serve as outlets for the continent’s massive ice caps. Stresses cause cracks in floating ice, and meltwater and other factors can cause cracks to erode and grow to a point where the shelf quickly disintegrates.

According to the National Ice Center, the largest fragment of the Conger Plateau after the collapse was an iceberg, named C-38, which measured about 200 square miles.

Loss of a shelf can allow faster movement of glaciers behind it, which can lead to faster loss of the ice sheet and therefore greater sea level rise. Loss of sea ice is a major concern in West Antarctica, where warming linked to climate change has a greater effect than in the east.

Several very great glaciers of West Antarctica are already flowing faster and if their ice shelves were to collapse completely, sea levels could rise on the order of 10 feet over the course of centuries.

But the two glaciers behind the Conger Sheet are small, and even if they were to accelerate, they would have a minimal effect on sea levels, on the order of fractions of an inch over a century or two, Ted said. Scambos, Principal Investigator at Center for Earth Sciences and Observation at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

While some ice shelves have collapsed in West Antarctica – notably the much larger Larsen B, in 2002 – The Conger collapse is the first observed in East Antarctica since the era of satellite imagery began in 1979, said Catherine Walker, a glaciologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Dr Walker, who had been monitoring the pack ice for a few months, said it had been receding for several years. “It was an unhealthy little pack ice to start with,” she said. But it seemed to have stabilized, she said, between the mainland and a small island.

So while the collapse was not a complete surprise, it happened earlier than expected, she said. She and Dr Scambos agreed that recent weather conditions in this part of Antarctica may have played a role.

In mid-March, an atmospheric river, a plume of water vapor-laden air, swept across East Antarctica from the ocean to the north. This resulted in record heat in some places, with temperatures up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit above normal for this time of year.

The heat could have caused more melting of the surface of the Conger ice shelf, further eroding its cracks and accelerating its collapse. But Dr Scambos said it was likely that the windy conditions resulting from the atmospheric river, combined with record breaking sea ice around Antarctica this season, played a bigger role.

The sea ice acts as a buffer, dampening the swell that rolls onto the coast from the southern ocean. With little ice and the wind stirring up the ocean even more, the floating shelf flexed more than it normally would. “The flexing probably weakened the more fixed parts of the ice that held the plateau together,” Dr Scambos said.

“The warm pulse probably didn’t do much,” he said, “but the winds and the warm temperatures in the air and in the ocean are definitely not helping the stability of the ice platform.”

East Antarctica has been considered the most stable region of Antarctica, with less warming and even ice gains in some areas. The collapse of the Conger ice shelf doesn’t really change that view, Dr Walker said. “We don’t see any indication that this is going to happen in the rest of East Antarctica anytime soon,” she said.

Dr Scambos, who studies West Antarctica’s most at-risk ice shelves and glaciers, said it would be interesting to see what happens with the glaciers behind Conger. “Each time one of these things happens,” he said, “it tells us a little bit more about how larger parts of Antarctica are going to react when bigger events happen. “

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Newsrust - US Top News: The Conger Ice Shelf collapses in East Antarctica, a first
The Conger Ice Shelf collapses in East Antarctica, a first
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