Scientists say key Antarctic ice shelf is breaking up faster than expected

A key Antarctic ice shelf is breaking up way faster than scientists originally expected, according to a new study.

Scientists are now concerned that the Pine Island Glacier’s ice shelf could begin to collapse quicker than predicted due to climate change. The ice shelf acts as a barrier for the glacier that is also melting quickly, NBC News reported.

The acceleration of the ice shelf loss was first noticed in 2017. Between then and 2020, the ice shelf has retreated nearly 12 miles, according to the Science Advances study, which was released on Friday.


Researchers have been observing the crumbling shelf on time-lapse video from a European satellite, which takes photos of the structure every six days, according to NBC News.

“You can see stuff just tearing apart,” study lead author Ian Joughin, a University of Washington glaciologist, told the news outlet. “So it almost looks like the speed-up itself is weakening the glacier. … And so far we’ve lost maybe 20 percent of the main shelf.”

Three major breakup events that occurred between 2017 and 2020 are thought to have caused the shelf to be closer to wearing away. Those events caused icebergs over 5 miles long and 22 miles wide that eventually broke down into multiple smaller pieces, Joughin told NBC News.

“It’s not at all inconceivable that the whole shelf could give way and go within a few years,” Joughin said. “I’d say that’s a long shot, but not a very long shot.”

Joughin also found that two points of the Pine Island Glacier were moving toward the sea 12 percent faster beginning in 2017.

“So that means 12 percent more ice from Pine Island going into the ocean that wasn’t there before,” he said.

The Pine Island Glacier is one of the glaciers in western Antarctica that scientists worry the most about losing. It contains about 180 trillion tons of ice and is reportedly responsible for nearly a quarter of the continent’s ice loss.

“These science results continue to highlight the vulnerability of Antarctica, a major reservoir for potential sea level rise,” said Twila Moon, a National Snow and Ice Data scientist who wasn’t part of the research. “Again and again, other research has confirmed how Antarctica evolves in the future will depend on human greenhouse gas emissions.”

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