The Larsen C Ice Shelf growing rift

Antarctic Peninsula ice shelves | Ice shelf collapse on the Antarctic Peninsula | Rifting on Larsen C | Impact of calving the large iceberg | Sea level rise following ice-shelf collapse | References | Comments |

Antarctic Peninsula ice shelves

The Antarctic Peninsula is fringed by floating ice shelves. They are floating extensions of the glaciers on land, and receive mass by snowfall and marine freeze-on. They lose mass by melting at their base and by calving icebergs. Larsen C Ice Shelf, the largest ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula, is currently being closely watched. Following a series of high-profile ice-shelf collapse events on the Antarctic Peninsula over the last few decades, all eyes are watching Larsen C and wondering when, and if, it will collapse.

A growing rift on Larsen C Ice Shelf

Those concerns are growing more acute as a large rift on Larsen C Ice Shelf is growing rapidly, threatening to soon calve a huge iceberg, equivalent to losing 10% of the area of the ice shelf. This could destabilise the ice shelf, making it more susceptible to a total collapse.

Larsen C rift animation uses #Sentinel1 InSAR to illustrate recent jumps in rift progression. From Prof. Adrian Luckman.

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The Global Last Glacial Maximum

Around 27,000 years ago, ice sheets reached their maximum across the world, after a period of global cooling caused by variations in the Earth’s orbit around the sun. There was a massive ice sheet in North America (the Laurentide Ice Sheet)[1, 2], a large Eurasian Ice Sheet covering Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia as well as northern Europe[3], an ice sheet in Antarctica[4], the Himalaya and Patagonia[5, 6]. Land near the ice sheets that escaped glaciation was cold, with tundra vegetation. Northern Europe was frequented by ice-age animals such as mammoth, reindeer and arctic hare. There was a landbridge betweeb Britain and Europe, and animals could walk freely across it. Numerous human artefacts from this time are scattered across the landscape.

Ice sheets at the Last Glacial Maximum worldwide, around 27,000 to 21,000 years ago. From data in Ehlers et al., 2011.

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Antarctic Sea Ice

Guest post by Dr Jonathan Day, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading

What is going on with the Antarctic sea ice?

March 2017 was an interesting month for sea ice. Both northern and southern hemispheres experienced record breaking low extents for the time of year. The extent of Arctic sea ice reached the maximum area of its seasonal cycle on March 7th coming in at 14.42 million km2. This was a fraction below the previous record, set in 2015 and is in line with what we expect to see in a warming climate. Meanwhile the other side of the planet Antarctic sea ice continues to confound expectations. Continue reading

Will we enter another ice age?

There are a number of web and news articles around surrounding the question of whether or not we will enter another ice age. Many of these questions arise from the idea that a collapse or significant melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet will produce enough fresh water to shut down the global thermohaline circulation, dropping us into a new ice age in the next 10,000 years.

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Antarctic Peninsula has strong sensitivity to surface warming

The Antarctic Peninsula is warming very rapidly, about six times the global average[1-3]. There has been a 95% increase in positive degree day sums since 1948[4]. Glaciers in the region are accelerating, in response to frontal thinning and recession[5]. In addition, ice shelves are collapsing[6], glacier fronts are retreating[7]. The causes for much of these changes has often been attributed to ocean forcing, with warm ocean waters melting these glaciers from below[8-11]. However, while ocean forcing may dominate further south, such as at Pine Island Glacier, a few recent papers have highlighted the importance of surface processes and surface melt induced by warmer surface air temperatures and longer melt seasons, specifically on the Antarctic Peninsula. Continue reading

Just published: most comprehensive review ever of the glaciation of Antartica

A major new review of the last glaciation of the entire Antarctic Ice Sheet has just been published by Quaternary Science ReviewsThe special issue of the journal includes a suite of review papers involving an international team of experts regarding the last glaciation of the entire Antarctic Ice Sheet. This review, which comprises six review papers and an overview paper in a special issue of Quaternary Science Reviews, is now complete and all papers have been accepted for publication. As this is the most important, up to date and inclusive review ever to be attempted for the glaciation and recession of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, it represents a major step forward in our understanding of palaeo ice-sheet dynamics, provides a benchmark against which future research needs can be identified and highlighted, and provides a compilation of data unlike anything seen before, which can be used to test and calibrate numerical ice-sheet models.

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In defence of reticence

Occasionally, comments on this website call me reticent. I think that this is because I try not to let my personal opinions cloud my professional, scientific judgement. I am proud to be reticent. I always try to be informative, to give values of uncertainties and ranges and assessments of confidence. I try to present both sides of the story, while always relying on peer-reviewed papers published in reputable scientific journals. I try to let the evidence speak for itself. Continue reading

Patagonian Ice Sheet thinning during a changing climate

J.Boex, C. Fogwill, S. Harrison, N.F. Glasser, A. Hein, C. Schnabel and S. Xu.  Rapid thinning of the Late Pleistocene Patagonian Ice Sheet followed migration of the Southern Westerlies. Scientific Reports 3: 2118, p. 1-6

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The Patagonian Ice Sheet

Patagonian mountains east of the North Patagonian Icefield. Credit: Stephen Harrison

Patagonian mountains east of the North Patagonian Icefield. Credit: Stephan Harrison

This recent open-access paper in the new journal Science Communications, which is part of the Nature group, has demonstrated that the during the deglacial period (~19,000 years ago), the Patagonian Ice Sheet in South America responded rapidly in response to changing precipitation patterns and warming during the last deglaciation. The fact that the Patagonian Ice Sheet responded so quickly to changes in precipitation and temperature has vivid implications for the current, and future, behaviour of the current North Patagonian Icefield  and South Patagonian Icefield. We already know that the shrinkage of the North and South Patagonian ice fields was faster over the last decade or so than at any point in the last couple of centuries. Understanding on a broader scale how these sensitive, high-latitude ice masses are dependent on small changes in atmospheric circulation means that we will better be able to predict the future behaviour of these ice sheets. Reconstructing rates of ice-sheet decay since the Last Glacial Maximum means that we can better assess the mechanisms of climate change (including changing wind patterns) during a major climate transition. Continue reading

George VI Ice Shelf

Holt, T.O., Glasser, N.F., Quincey, D. and Siegfried, M.R., 2013. Speedup and fracturing of George VI Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula. The Cryosphere, 7: 797-816.

George VI Ice Shelf

George VI Ice Shelf, Alexander Island

George VI Ice Shelf, Alexander Island, showing ice flowing onto the ice shelf from both the Antarctic Peninsula and Alexander Island

Alexander Island and George VI Ice Shelf is an area I’m particularly interested in (see our project details), and the ice shelf is worth investigating for several reasons. For a start, it’s unusual, being trapped between the mainland and Alexander Island, and secondly, because it’s right on the -9°C mean annual air temperature isotherm (like a contour, but of mean annual air temperatures).  Some people have argued that this mean annual air temperature is the critical threshold above which ice shelves may dramatically collapse, which has implications for accelerated flow of glaciers and ice-sheet thinning. Ice shelves are also susceptible to warming from below by warm currents penetrating onto the continental shelf. So, research into this important part of the peninsula is always welcome. Holt and colleagues have just completed a study (open access) that investigates the response of George VI Ice Shelf to environmental change (i.e., oceanic and atmospheric temperature variations), and offer an assessment as to its future stability (Holt et al., 2013). Continue reading