A team of researchers from NASA are predicting that a 10,000-year-old Antarctic ice shelf will disintegrate by 2020, accelerating global sea rise. In addition, glaciers and the remaining ice shelves are showing dangerous signs.
The Antarctic Larsen B Ice Shelf, located on the Antarctic Peninsula, is only a remnant of what it was last century. In 2002, a giant section of it broke up into the ocean. What remains is a 625-square-mile (1,600-square-kilometer) area of ice shelf according to the Huffington Post, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island. But soon, even that section will be gone.
Team leader Ala Khazendar from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explained, “This ice shelf has existed for at least 10,000 years, and soon it will be gone.”
“What is really surprising about Larsen B is how quickly the changes are taking place. Change has been relentless.”
The Washington Post reports that if the ice shelf disintegrates, it won’t change sea levels immediately, since the ice is already submerged. The negative effects come afterwards, when the glaciers that are being held back by Larsen B migrate into the sea.
Despite the lethargic pace of the danger, Ala Khazendar described the time when the ice shelf gives way as an exciting event.
“What might happen is that for a few years, we will have the detachment of big icebergs from this remaining ice shelf, and then at one point, one very very warm summer, when you have lots of melting of the surface, the whole thing will just give way, and will shatter into thousands of smaller icebergs.”
The land-based glaciers behind the shelf already started its slow drift. Researchers estimate that both Leppard and Flask glaciers have dropped between 49 to 65 from 2002 — when the first part of Larsen broke off — to 2011. The Larsen C ice shelf is also showing signs of weakening
There is a silver-lining.
Although Antarctica itself holds enough frozen water to raise the world’s oceans a few feet if it were all melted, the Antarctic Peninsula only holds enough for a few centimeters.
The U.S. Geological Survey reported that if all the glaciers on the peninsula hypothetically melted, not just the ones behind Larsen B, the world’s oceans could rise 1.5 feet.
Still, for the huge number of people living at or near sea level, that comes as little comfort.
Khazendar explained, “Nobody ever says that all of the ice in Antarctica, or the Antarctic peninsula, will be in the ocean, but even 10, 20 centimeters would be a problem for the planet.”
[Image Credit: Getty Images]