The Conger ice shelf, the size of New York City, has collapsed in a matter of days in Eastern Antarctica, The Guardian has reported. The collapse was captured by satellite imagery and shared on social media by planetary scientist, Catherine Walker.
Complete collapse of East Antarctica's Conger Ice Shelf (~1200 sq. km) ~March 15, seen in combo of #Landsat and #MODIS imagery. Possible it hit its tipping point following the #Antarctic #AtmosphericRiver and heatwave too? #CongerIceShelf #Antarctica @helenafricker @icy_pete https://t.co/7dP5d6isvd pic.twitter.com/1wzmuOwdQn— Catherine Colello Walker (@CapComCatWalk) March 24, 2022
The images shared in the tweet show the shelf has been intact for a period of three months in January 2022 and is shattered like a piece of glass in the last couple of images, which were taken barely a week apart in March 2022.
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How is it different from previous collapses?
This is not the first time that the continent has seen an ice shelf disintegrate. In 2002, the Larsen B ice shelf, which had been stable for over 10,000 years collapsed. The shelf was three times bigger than Conger and compared to the size of the state of Rhode Island in the U.S.
However, what makes the recent collapse significant is that the Conger ice shelf is located in the eastern part of Antarctica, a region considered as a massive, immovable, and cold block of ice by researchers so far. Peter Neff, a glaciologist told The Guardian that rates of ice loss were considered to be vastly different in the east as compared to the west of Antarctica, where the Larsen B was.
Interestingly, the Conger ice shelf had been shrinking gradually since the early 2000s. But over the last couple of years, the ice loss has been more rapid, and earlier this month, the ice shelf was about half the size than it was in January this year.
It is likely that the sudden collapse was caused by the heatwave that East Antarctica witnessed last week. Temperatures in the region soared to 12 degrees Fahrenheit, which might seem low but is a good 40 degrees above the seasonal norm.
Sign of things to come
While data of the collapse needs to be examined in detail, experts told The Guardian that the collapse was likely due to the surface melting of the shelf, just the way the Larsen B shelf had melted two decades ago.
With increasing global temperatures, more ice shelves are likely to break down in the future. Though the collapse of the Conger ice shelf is one of the most significant events in Antarctic history, the impact of the collapse would not be large as the glacier behind the shelf was relatively small.
The Thwaites glacier is about the size of Florida and is known among scientists as the doomsday glacier. At 100 times, the size of Larsen B, Thwaites is also at the risk of melting and could single-handedly increase sea levels by close to two feet.
As the Conger ice shelf experience has shown, the melting can occur faster than we presume and things can change rather quickly.