Satellite captures collapse of Antarctic ice shelf larger than Melbourne

·Environment Editor
·2-min read

Satellite imagery has captured the collapse of an Antarctic ice shelf larger than Melbourne this month.

The 1,200 square kilometre Conger ice shelf can be seen looking largely intact on January 30, however by March 21 it appears shattered.

Europe’s Copernicus satellite program, which acquired the images, said the eastern side of the continent, where the collapse occurred was previously thought to be “not heavily affected” by climate change.

Before and after shots show the collapse of the Conger ice shelf. Source: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery
Before and after shots show the collapse of the Conger ice shelf. Source: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery

As the area is the Antarctica’s highest and driest, the event was not anticipated by climate scientists.

Dr Karl explains link between ice sheet collapse and climate change

The collapse occurred after a heatwave this month in which Antarctica experienced temperatures 40 degrees above the norm, however it is too soon to directly link the two.

While it can be difficult to predict when a such a climactic event will be triggered, University of Sydney scientist Dr Karl Kruszelnicki said there is “definitely a correlation” between global warming and melting ice sheets.

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki explains the correlation between ice shelf collapse and global warming. Source: Yahoo
Dr Karl Kruszelnicki explains the correlation between ice shelf collapse and global warming. Source: Yahoo

“We’ve known since the 1850s, that carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

“What that means in English is that it acts like a one-way valve. It lets in the heat of sun into the Earth’s biosphere but doesn’t let it out again.

"At the moment, with our current carbon dioxide levels, the amount of heat trapped each day is around the equivalent to 600,000 Hiroshima bombs.”

Antarctic ice shelf collapse can trigger sea level rise

NASA said while it’s “relatively common” for ice shelves to disintegrate into smaller icebergs the disintegration was “less common”.

“The whole shelf collapsed in just around two weeks,” Christopher Shuman from University of Maryland told the space agency.

Ice sheets like Conger are colloquially referred to as “safety belts” which protect Antarctica’s borders.

Thousands of years are required for such a large floating ice sheet to form, and its loss will likely see some snow and ice that was held back by the formation flow into the ocean.

If enough of the structures disintegrate into the ocean, sea levels will rise and coastal communities around the world will be negatively affected.

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