Satellite view of the Larsen C Ice Shelf detaching to form a trillion-ton iceberg on 12 July 2017. The iceberg would barely fit inside Wales. Graphic: Adrian Luckman / MIDAS

By Martin O'Leary and Adrian Luckman
12 July 2017

(Project MIDAS) – A one trillion tonne iceberg – one of the biggest ever recorded - has calved away from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica. The calving occurred sometime between Monday 10th July and Wednesday 12th July 2017, when a 5,800 square km section of Larsen C finally broke away. The iceberg, which is likely to be named A68, weighs more than a trillion tonnes.  Its volume is twice that of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes.

The final breakthrough was detected in data from NASA’s Aqua MODIS satellite instrument, which images in the thermal infrared at a resolution of 1km, and confirmed by NASA’s Suomi VIIRS instrument.

The development of the rift over the last year was monitored using data from the European Space Agency Sentinel-1 satellites – part of the European Copernicus Space Component. Sentinel-1 is a radar imaging system capable of acquiring images regardless of cloud cover, and throughout the current winter period of polar darkness.

The iceberg weighs more than a trillion tonnes (1,000,000,000,000 metric tonnes), but it was already floating before it calved away so has no immediate impact on sea level. The calving of this iceberg leaves the Larsen C Ice Shelf reduced in area by more than 12%, and the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula changed forever.

Although the remaining ice shelf will continue naturally to regrow, Swansea researchers have previously shown that the new configuration is potentially less stable than it was prior to the rift.  There is a risk that Larsen C may eventually follow the example of its neighbour, Larsen B, which disintegrated in 2002 following a similar rift-induced calving event in 1995.

Professor Adrian Luckman of Swansea University, lead investigator of the MIDAS project, said:

“We have been anticipating this event for months, and have been surprised how long it took for the rift to break through the final few kilometres of ice. We will continue to monitor both the impact of this calving event on the Larsen C Ice Shelf, and the fate of this huge iceberg.

The iceberg is one of the largest recorded and its future progress is difficult to predict. It may remain in one piece but is more likely to break into fragments. Some of the ice may remain in the area for decades, while parts of the iceberg may drift north into warmer waters.

The recent development in satellite systems such as Sentinel-1 and MODIS have vastly improved our ability to monitor events such as this.”

The Larsen C Ice Shelf, which has a thickness of between 200 and 600 metres, floats on the ocean at the edge of The Antarctic Peninsula, holding back the flow of glaciers that feed into it.

Researchers from the MIDAS Project have been monitoring the rift in Larsen C for many years, following the collapse of the Larsen A ice shelf in 1995 and the sudden break-up of the Larsen B shelf in 2002.  They reported rapid advances of the rift in January, May and June, which increased its length to over 200 km and left the iceberg hanging on by a thread of ice just 4.5 km (2.8 miles) wide.

The team monitored the earlier development of the rift using a technique called satellite radar interferometry (SRI) applied to ESA Sentinel-1 images. While the rift is only visible in radar images when it is more than 50m wide, by combining pairs of images, SRI allows the impact of very small changes in ice shelf geometry to be detected, and the rift tip to be monitored precisely.

Dr Martin O’Leary, a Swansea University glaciologist and member of the MIDAS project team, said of the recent calving:

“Although this is a natural event, and we’re not aware of any link to human-induced climate change, this puts the ice shelf in a very vulnerable position. 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.”

Professor Adrian Luckman of Swansea University added:

“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 – opinions in the scientific community are divided. Our models say it will be less stable, but any future collapse remains years or decades away.”

Whilst this new iceberg will not immediately raise sea levels, if the shelf loses much more of its area, it could result in glaciers that flow off the land behind speeding up their passage towards the ocean. This non-floating ice would have an eventual impact on sea levels, but only at a very modest rate.

Larsen C calves trillion ton iceberg

NASA Suomi VIIRS panchromatic image from 12 July 2017, confirming the calving of the Larsen C Ice Shelf. Graphic: NASA / Suomi

By Adrian Luckman
12 July 2017

(The Conversation) – One of the largest icebergs ever recorded has just broken away from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica. Over the past few years I’ve led a team that has been studying this ice shelf and monitoring change. We spent many weeks camped on the ice investigating melt ponds and their impact – and struggling to avoid sunburn thanks to the thin ozone layer. Our main approach, however, is to use satellites to keep an eye on things.

We’ve been surprised by the level of interest in what may simply be a rare but natural occurrence. Because, despite the media and public fascination, the Larsen C rift and iceberg “calving” is not a warning of imminent sea level rise, and any link to climate change is far from straightforward. This event is, however, a spectacular episode in the recent history of Antarctica’s ice shelves, involving forces beyond the human scale, in a place where few of us have been, and one which will fundamentally change the geography of this region.

Ice shelves are found where glaciers meet the ocean and the climate is cold enough to sustain the ice as it goes afloat. Located mostly around Antarctica, these floating platforms of ice a few hundred meters thick form natural barriers which slow the flow of glaciers into the ocean and thereby regulate sea level rise. In a warming world, ice shelves are of particular scientific interest because they are susceptible both to atmospheric warming from above and ocean warming from below. […]

Even if the remaining part of Larsen C were to eventually collapse, many years into the future, the potential sea level rise is quite modest. Taking into account only the catchments of glaciers flowing into Larsen C, the total, even after decades, will probably be less than a centimetre.

Is this a climate change signal?

This event has also been widely but over-simplistically linked to climate change. This is not surprising because notable changes in the earth’s glaciers and ice sheets are normally associated with rising environmental temperatures. The collapses of Larsen A and B have previously been linked to regional warming, and the iceberg calving will leave Larsen C at its most retreated position in records going back over a hundred years.

However, in satellite images from the 1980s, the rift was already clearly a long-established feature, and there is no direct evidence to link its recent growth to either atmospheric warming, which is not felt deep enough within the ice shelf, or ocean warming, which is an unlikely source of change given that most of Larsen C has recently been thickening. It is probably too early to blame this event directly on human-generated climate change. [more]

I’ve studied Larsen C and its giant iceberg for years – it’s not a simple story of climate change


  1. Abbyq said...

    Fascinating example of extreme calving. Often thought it would be great if these massive sources of fresh water could be harvested and put to good use sooner rather than waiting for them to melt and evaporate to be recycled back into rain/snow/ice. As for this "Money Grab" Global Warming, Climate Change Nonsense......."Spoiler Alert!!!", the Climate has been "changing" since the Planet started rotating.......The Planet is a closed, self-adjusting ecosystem.......yes, it is true, Folks, You're turning on your kitchen faucets and drinking Dinosaur Piss........With the exception of occasional space debris coming in or rocket going out what happens within the atmospheric envelope stays within the atmospheric envelope.  

  2. Anonymous said...

    Abbyq - your commentary reveals a startling lack of comprehension (and reading). You do realize it's winter in Antarctica? The loss of the ice shelf is remarkable.

    Mars LOST its atmosphere and 87% of its water (which were OCEANS) to space, what remains is but a fraction now, buried deep in the soil. It is absolutely possible for an atmosphere (and its water) to "disappear".

    The only nonsense "here" is you and your ignoramus commentary. Global warming has already triggered millions of refugees, devastating storms, droughts and billions and billions in damages. Hardly a "money grab", more like severe financial loss (something which the insurance industry is trying right now to decide is even insurable).

    You are stunningly out of touch with reality and what is happening in the world. That vacuum of space between your ears needs to be filled with knowledge, not unqualified, half-baked opinion and bias.  


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