When CNN recently reported that a sheet of ice the size of the state of Delaware was about to break away from Antarctica, it started a wave speculation as to its cause and probably impacts. This particular ice shelf known as Larsen C, whose thickness averages 350 meters, is now distinguished by a 90-mile crack running through it. Once that break happens, the newly created iceberg will measure 1,930 square miles.
Although the formation of icebergs in the Antarctic is a natural phenomenon, major research is being done on the effects of a warming climate in the Antarctic by Project MIDAS, a UK-based Antarctic research project. In a statement posted to the MIDAS website, the lead researcher Professor Adrian Luckman said “This is probably not directly attributable to any warming in the region, although of course the warming won’t have helped. It’s probably just simply a natural event that’s just been waiting around to happen.”
According to another MIDAS researcher, Martin O’Leary, the Larsen C break could make the area more vulnerable to climate change in the future. “What we’re worried about is that this will put the ice shelf in a more unstable position, which will mean that the effects of climate change, such as melting of the ice, thinning of the ice, those can have a stronger effect now.”
The Larsen C Ice Shelf will lose more than 10% of its area, and because there will be less ice, the shape of the Antarctic continent will be altered. The local currents will also undergo a shift with uncertain effects. As ice from the breakaway slab melts, the water temperature will cool impacting the ocean currents, including the Gulf Stream, which is part of a larger circulation pattern called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). Without AMOC, Western Europe would be a lot colder than it is now. The stability of AMOC is in question; scientists don’t know how much cooling it can take before it shuts down, or how long it might take to reach that tipping point. Best guess is 100 years, but that’s just a guess. Also, once the slab breaks off, the glaciers behind it will march unimpeded to the sea, where they will contribute to sea level rise.
Both the Arctic and the Antarctic are sensitive areas undergoing increasing stress that require continued scientific research and the attention of concerned citizens everywhere.