The Shackleton Ice Shelf in 2009. Conger was part of the Ice Shelf until it disintegrated in March 2022.
Satellite images have captured the dramatic end of a large ice shelf in East Antarctica.
The Conger Ice Shelf, which borders the much larger Shackleton Ice Shelf off the East Antarctic coast, completely collapsed on March 15. The shelf was about 1,200 square miles, only slightly smaller than Los Angeles and about a third the size of the Larsen B Ice Shelf, which broke up in 2002.
Catherine Walker, an Earth and Planets scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and NASA, tweeted satellite images obtained by the Landsat and MODIS satellites on Thursday† The GIF shared by Walker shows the shelf slowly receding leading up to March 14, and the following image, from March 16, shows it being completely broken.
“The Conger Ice Shelf was there and then suddenly it was gone,” said Andrew Mackintosh, an ice sheet expert and principal of the Earth, Atmosphere and Environment School at Monash University in Australia.
Ice sheets are critical to stopping ice flow on the continent into the sea. “If they collapse, the ice flow accelerates from inland and leads to sea level rise,” he said.
If you’ve been eyeing Earth’s icy southern end lately, you probably know that Antarctica has recently experienced unusually extreme heat. At Concordia Station, a joint Italian-French base in East Antarctica, temperatures reached a maximum of minus 11.8 degrees Celsius in mid-March. Cold, yes, but about 30 degrees warmer than the usual average for this time of year.
The heat was caused by an “atmospheric river,” a huge stream of warm air that swept across the region. It’s difficult to know whether the high temperatures in Antarctica led to the ice shelf collapse, but scientists will have to investigate how the extremes have changed the environment around Conger.
“We need to better understand how the warm spell affected the melt across this entire sector of East Antarctica,” Mackintosh said.
Antarctic research has mainly focused on West Antarctica, as it is much more accessible and has been the focus of well-equipped expeditions by the US and British Antarctic divisions. But extreme warming in March has thrown East Antarctica into the spotlight, highlighting the need to better understand the region and its response to human-induced climate change.
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