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An iceberg the size of Delaware has broken off Antarctica

An iceberg the size of Delaware has broken off Antarctica


It’s one of the largest icebergs ever recorded

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A large crack seen in the Larsen C shelf photographed in August 2016.
A large crack seen in the Larsen C shelf photographed in August 2016.
Image: NASA

An iceberg roughly the size of Delaware and weighing more than a trillion tons has broken off an ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula.

The calving off of the 2,500-square-mile iceberg from the Larsen C ice shelf was detected and confirmed in data from NASA, but scientists say the iceberg was already floating before it separated and therefore has no immediate impact on sea level. The iceberg had been closely monitored by scientists for months, as a deep crack slowly extended for over 120 miles. On July 6th, satellite data showed that only 2.8 miles of ice kept the iceberg attached to the larger ice shelf, called Larsen C.

Larsen C is the fourth largest ice shelf in Antarctica with an area of about 20,000 square miles, according to NASA. Ice shelves are barriers that keep land-based ice from flowing into the sea resulting in higher sea levels.

“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,” said Professor Adrian Luckman in a blog post for Project MIDAS, a UK-based Antarctic research project investigating the effects of a warming climate in West Antarctica.

The iceberg is likely to break into fragments with some of the ice remaining for decades in the area while other parts may drift to warmer water, he said.

“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,” said Dr. Martin O’Leary, a glaciologist and member of the MIDAS team. “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.”

But others believe it’s a sign that rising sea temperatures are causing Antarctica to fall apart. The fear is that today’s break-off could eventually lead to the entire collapse of the Larsen C ice shelf. That’s what happened to the nearby Larsen B shelf in 2002, which almost completely disintegrated in just over one month. If that ice melts or leaves the continent, then we’re in trouble. West Antarctica alone might contribute 10 feet of sea level rise.

The Larsen C break-off follows similar collapses that occurred in ice shelves in 1995 and 2002, both of which were attributed to a warming climate.