A trillion tons of ice have calved away from the Larsen C, an ice shelf on the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. While the nearly 2,300 square mile iceberg that resulted isn’t the first massive chunk of ice to break off the Larsen Ice Shelf, it’s the largest—and potentially most destabilizing.
“The remaining shelf will be at its smallest-ever known size. Maps will need to be redrawn,” Professor Adrian Luckman, a lead researcher for Project MIDAS, a UK-based Antarctic research project investigating the effects of climate change on the Larsen C., told The New York Times.
The Larsen is named after Captain Carl Anton Larsen, who led the first Norwegian expedition to Antarctica and is credited with discovering not just the ice shelf, but also several other locations on the peninsula between 1892 and 1894. It’s made up of several shelves, which have been named from A to G.
Barely a century after the discovery, sections of the famed shelf began breaking off in a North-to-South pattern. A relatively small portion of the greater ice shelf, the Larsen A, completely disintegrated in 1995. In 2002, the Larsen B partially collapsed, further eroding the Antarctic coast and sending a 1,250-square-mile portion of ice (enough to cover Manhattan 55 times over) into the ocean.
Those pale in comparison to the Larsen C. The latest section to calve off is roughly the size of Delaware—or, to compare it directly with Larsen B, about 100 Manhattans.
While some scientists have predicted a breakup of the ice shelves as a result of the earth’s warming trend, MIDAS project team members describe this as a natural event, and say they aren’t aware of any link to human-induced climate change.
The potential fallout could be more far-reaching than just schools having to order new atlases, some scientists say. “[The calving of Larsen C] puts the ice shelf in a very vulnerable position,” wrote Dr. Martin O’Leary, a member of the MIDAS project team, in a blog post on the project’s official site. “This is the furthest back that the ice front has been in recorded history. We’re going to be watching very carefully for signs that the rest of the shelf is becoming unstable.”
If the shelf continues to destabilize, it could one day completely collapse. Every time one of the shelves collapses, the icebergs that flow behind them move faster and faster. As these reach the oceans, they could eventually contribute to rising sea levels over the next several decades. However, scientists are torn on this point.
“In the ensuing months and years, the ice shelf could either gradually regrow, or may suffer further calving events which may eventually lead to collapse,” Luckman wrote in the same MIDAS blog post. “Opinions in the scientific community are divided. Our models say it will be less stable, but any future collapse remains years or decades away.”
Although the planetary effects, both immediate and long-term, are unknown and unpredictable, one thing is certain: the Antarctic Peninsula has been forever changed.