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Antarctic Ice Shelf Crack Has A New Branch: Why This Worries Scientists

4 May 2017, 10:13 pm EDT By Andrew Norman Tech Times
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Scientists discovered that the main crack on Larsen C Ice Shelf branched into a second rift. This branched crack was reportedly 9.3 miles long and was progressing toward the ice front where the shelf meets the sea.  ( Project Midas )

Scientists have been studying the progress of the Larsen C Ice Shelf rift in Antarctica for some time. Swansea University researchers have shared evidence that the primary rift has branched and this branch is moving in the ice front's direction.

The main rift in Larsen C is currently around 112 miles long, whereas the branch has progressed to roughly 9.3 miles.

How The Branch Was Spotted

Using a highly sensitive satellite known as Sentinel-1, scientists have been tracking the main rift's progression on the Larsen C. It is supposed that once the rift moves to a certain point, it could break off from the largest iceberg ever recorded. Currently, roughly 12.5 miles of ice is holding the shelf together.

Of late, the main rift seems to have slowed down and has not progressed any further. However, satellite images showed that it had branched out into a second rift that was progressing.

"As of May 1 2017, we have observed a significant change in the rift on the Larsen C Ice Shelf," Project Midas notes.

Project Midas is a UK-based research group that is examining the impact of global warming on the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

Antarctica is presently experiencing winter, which has made it difficult for scientists to get detailed images. They have instead employed a technology known as Synthetic Aperture Radar or SAR, based on the European Space Agency's Sentinel-1 satellite.

Larsen C Ice Shelf Rift: Why Is It Worrying?

While the branching is a new development, everything else seems to be stable at the moment. The primary fissure has not progressed further in recent weeks as it has hit a region of soft ice — also known as a "suture zone" — which has possibly slowed down its pace.

However, researchers have noted that the rift is getting wider by around 3.2 feet per day and experts think this is due to the new branch that has formed.

At approximately 1,150 feet thick, the Larsen C Ice Shelf is crucial to maintain global sea levels. Scientists explained that if the crack progresses and a part of the shelf breaks off, glaciers would feed into the ocean causing an increase in water levels.

"When it calves, the Larsen C Ice Shelf will lose more than 10% of its area to leave the ice front at its most retreated position ever recorded; this event will fundamentally change the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula," the Project Midas report states.

The recent changes suggest that the Larsen C may meet the similar fate as the Larsen B Ice Shelf, which broke off in 2002 due to a similar rift.

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