Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier ice shelf is crumbling faster than expected

Brittany A. Roston - Jun 11, 2021, 4:38pm CDT
Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier ice shelf is crumbling faster than expected

A newly published video shows the dramatic increase in ice chunks breaking free from the large ice shelf holding back the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica. With the rate of icebergs breaking free increasing over the past few years, scientists warn that the time it takes before the glacier falls into the ocean may be significantly reduced.

The update on the Pine Island Glacier comes from the University of Washington, where researchers shared a video of iceberg loss from the ice shelf from January 2015 to March 2020. The video is made from satellite images captured using the ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellites; images were captured every 12 days for the first two years followed by every six days for the remaining years.

Scientists have been warning for years that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is facing an inevitable collapse. Back in 2014, University of Washington researchers said that this section of ice holds enough water to increase the global sea levels by several feet. Based on data available at the time, it was estimated that the ‘fastest’ case scenario for a collapse would be 200 years, with the estimate ranging up to more than 1,000 years.

The loss of the rest of the ice shelf holding back the Pine Island Glacier may result in a more ‘abrupt’ collapse than previously anticipated, according to the latest study. This particular glacier holds enough water to cause a 1.6ft rise in global ocean levels. The researchers warn that if Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers speed up and free their hold on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, it may result in the global oceans rising by several feet over a few centuries.

Though the researchers say the increased rate of change isn’t ‘catastrophic’ right now, the potential loss of the remaining ice shelf could result in the glacier itself speeding up considerably. Questions remain, including whether the rest of the ice shelf will ultimately crumble away. However, the study notes that the loss of this ice shelf may now happen within the next 10 – 20 years rather than over more than 100 years.


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