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A third of Antarctic ice shelves risk collapsing due to climate change

Larsen C ice shelf on the east of the Antarctic peninsula

The Larsen C ice shelf on the east of the Antarctic Peninsula


Around a third of the ice shelves holding again big glaciers in Antarctica are at risk of collapse if the world fails to take enough motion on climate change, new projections have discovered.

The ice shelves circling the continent are weak to meltwater on their floor inflicting the ice to crack and disintegrate, a course of often known as hydrofracturing.


Computer modelling by Ella Gilbert on the University of Reading, UK, and Christoph Kittel on the University of Liege, Belgium, confirmed that if the world warms by 4°C since pre-industrial ranges, then 34 per cent of the continent’s ice shelves can have meltwater on their floor, an indication they’re at risk of collapse.

However, the determine falls to 18 per cent if temperature rises are checked at 2°C. The world is at present on monitor for a 2.9°C rise however, if applied, climate plans and web zero targets would lower that to 2.1°C.

“Warming to 2°C means half the ice shelf area is at risk of collapsing. That is the message: the less the warming the better,” says Gilbert.

She and Kittel used a a lot larger decision climate mannequin than earlier analysis, with grid squares 35 kilometres throughout somewhat than a whole bunch of kilometres throughout. It additionally extra precisely represents cloud physics, which is significant as estimates of the world at risk of collapse hinge on how a lot ice loss is changed by snowfall. The large distinction between the two°C and 4°C rise eventualities stems from melting outweighing elevated snowfall in a 4°C hotter world.

The Larsen C ice shelf on the east of the Antarctic Peninsula, the place an enormous iceberg broke off in 2017, was discovered to be one of the areas most at risk.

“This study shows melting at the ice shelves’ surface will spreads southwards to parts of the continent where huge reservoirs of inland ice may lose their protective barrier. If that happens, we can expect rapid increases in sea level rise along every coastline of our planet,” says Andrew Shepherd on the University of Leeds, UK, who wasn’t concerned with the paper.

The analysis doesn’t put a determine on how a lot sea stage rise may happen if ice shelves collapsed and launched the glaciers behind them. However, Gilbert says: “My gut feeling is for 4°C it could potentially contribute tens of centimetres if they did collapse.” Avoiding 10 centimetres of sea stage rise ought to expose 10 million fewer individuals globally to flooding dangers.

Helene Seroussi at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, who wasn’t half of the analysis group, says the examine’s large advance is utilizing the next decision mannequin. While the analysis identifies ice shelves that might be hydrofractured, Seroussi says additional evaluation of how particular person ice shelves transfer – the “dynamical stress regime” – is required to work out which of them will really collapse.

Journal reference: Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1029/2020GL091733

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