Researchers with the UK-based Project MIDAS have detected a new branch on the 80-mile-long crack running down Antarctica’s Larsen C Ice Shelf.
The rift has remained stable for the past five months and the new crack is the first activity since early January. The recent split extends roughly six miles out of the main crack, suggesting that the 2,000-square-mile ice shelf will eventually plunge into the sea.
Midas has monitored the effects of melting on the Larsen C ice shelf for the past few years. While the region has always been susceptible to global warming, the split experienced a massive expansion at the end of last year when it grew 12 miles in December. It then extended another six miles over a two week period in January.
With this new research, scientists fully expect the shelf to collapse in the near future. That will cause it to lose more than 10 percent of its ice surface area and split off a chunk of ice roughly the size of Delaware.
The new crack — detailed in a recent MIDAS report — sits six miles behind the tip of the main channel and is heading towards the ice-front.
While it is not easy to make direct observations in the Arctic during the winter, scientists used the synthetic aperture radar (SAR) interferometry instrument aboard ESA’s Sentinel-1 satellites to see through the frost.
Though the main rift has not extended over the past few months, it has been steadily growing wider with time. This suggests the integrity of the ice shelf is becoming more unstable, giving researchers even more reasons to believe it will collapse.
“This widening has increased noticeably since the development of the new branch, as can be seen in measurements of the ice flow velocity,” wrote Midas scientists, according to Gizmodo.
These changes are likely the result of warmer air and water in the region and, while the event will not directly contribute to sea level rise, it gives yet another example of how climate change affects our planet.
The team plans to continue monitoring the rift in hopes they will be able to see the effects of the split once it occurs. Even if it does not directly alter sea levels, losing that much ice is going to drastically change the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula.
“We have previously shown that the new configuration will be less stable than it was before the rift, and that Larsen C may eventually follow the example of its neighbor Larsen B, which disintegrated in 2002 following a similar rift-induced calving event,” said Swansea University professor Adrian Luckman, a leader at Project Midas, according to The Washington Post.