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Crack In Antarctica’s Ice Shelf Larsen C Heading To Full Split

9 February 2017, 7:06 am EST By Kalyan Kumar Tech Times
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An expanding crack is threatening Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica as it heads for a breakup. The resulting ice berg will be massive - at 3,000 square miles, it will be half the size of Lebanon.  ( NASA/John Sonntag )

The expanding giant crack in Antarctican ice shelf is raising concerns that its break off from the continent is only a matter of time. The situation worsened in January with the crack growing rapidly by 6 miles in the middle of the month.

According to experts, the crack in the Larsen C Ice Shelf that is floating off the coast of northwestern Antarctica has been adding space equivalent to five football fields every day.

Even as it floats, Larsen C is attached to the land and its origin comes from the formations that evolved from the Antarctic mainland over many centuries.

Break Off Inevitable

Now the crack has crossed more than 100 miles in length and has only 20 miles left to touch the other end of the ice shelf.

Once the crack engulfs the entire ice shelf, the liberating ice chunk will be one of the largest ever documented, according to Project Midas, a research team that has been tracking the ice shelf's rift.

"The iceberg is likely to break free within the next few months," explained Adrian J. Luckman of Swansea University in Wales. He said the break-up is inevitable as the crack has moved up from the softer ice part to another.

Meanwhile, Martin O'Leary, research officer at Swansea University and a member of Project MIDAS also said the crack has exacerbated massively.

"The rift grew again in mid-January (sometime between the 13th and 19th), by around 10 kilometers," he said.

O'Leary said his team had been monitoring the crack since 2010 when it appeared prominent compared to other rifts.

"It's been of particular interest since around 2014, when it became clear that the berg was going to be a large one," he said.

Highlighting the gravity of the breakup, he said the separating ice chunk would be an average 10 percent of the shelf with "around 5,000 square kilometers," almost half the size of Lebanon.

Right now the iceberg is loosely clung to the Antarctic mainland by a strip of 20 kilometers long ice.

Luckman, who is also a member of the MIDAS team said it would be surprising if the ice shelf does not break off in the next few months.

Natural Process Or Climate Change?

Amidst anxieties over global warming causing polar ice dissolution, some scientists have called the ice break a geographical event than a climate change incident.

However, there is a consensus that the split will change the Antarctic landscape.

O'Leary also prefers to call the event a "natural process" that happens once in many decades. Larsen C had such an event in the mid-80s.

According to O'Leary, the loss of a state-sized ice block may expose the remaining ice shelf to more climate change related attacks and its eventual collapse will be hastened.

Periodic separations of ice shelves are not new in Antarctica. In the past also, a small ice shelf named Larsen A broke off in 1995 while Larsen B, yet another ice shelf of 3,200 square kilometers and 220 meters of thickness withered off in 2002.

Impact Of Break Up

Now, the focus has shifted to the possible consequences from the break-off.

Ice shelves play a critical function in structurally supporting the glaciers that rest on land. So, the collapse of an ice shelf will tend to drive the glaciers toward the ocean.

According to Eric J. Rignot, a glaciologist and a senior scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, when an ice shelf breaks away, it will take away the buttressing force that acts on the glaciers while flowing into it.

When there is less resistance, the flowing glaciers will feel like a cork in front of them has been removed, Rignot added.

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