Scientists just discovered how a massive rift in one of Antarctica’s ice shelves formed – and it does not bode well for the continent’s future. The giant crack formed near the center of the Pine Island Glacier – instead of a coastal region, where large sections are more prone to break off into chunks. Warm ocean waters seeping underneath the ice shelf caused the crack to grow underneath the surface of the glacier. The finding has researchers worried this rift might contribute to the inevitable collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
The 20-mile long crack can be found in the Pine Island Glacier, located in West Antarctica. In July 2015, it was responsible for a 225-square-mile iceberg breaking off into the Pine Island Bay; now scientists believe it is nowhere near finished with its destructive potential. The development of the crack is rather unusual, originating from warm ocean waters making their way to a central valley in the ice shelf and destabilizing the area from underneath. “The really troubling thing is that there are many of these valleys further up-glacier,” said Ian Howat, an associate professor at Ohio State University and lead author of a recent study on the glacier’s activity.
Both Pine Island and Thwaites Glacier have integral roles in keeping the West Antarctic Ice Sheet together. Researchers predict the sheet’s collapse could cause a global rise in sea levels of anywhere between 3.4 to 10 feet. Those keeping an eye on the science may differ on their predictions of the damage, but not the fact that the ice shelf will certainly melt within the next few hundred years.
“It’s generally accepted that it’s no longer a question of whether the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will melt, it’s a question of when,” said Howat in a press release. “This kind of rifting behavior provides another mechanism for rapid retreat of these glaciers, adding to the probability that we may see significant collapse of West Antarctica in our lifetimes.”