Crack in Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf forks

Larsen C ice shelf

CRACKED OPEN  A new rift has branched out from the 180-kilometer-long crack (shown) along Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf, new satellite maps reveal. While the main crack hasn’t lengthened since mid-February, scientists estimate that it widens by more than a meter a day.

John Sonntag/NASA

The 180-kilometer-long crack threatening one of Antarctica’s largest ice shelves has branched out, new satellite observations reveal. The main rift in the Larsen C ice shelf hasn’t grown longer since February. But radar mapping shows that a crack has split off from the main rupture like a snake’s forked tongue, members of Project MIDAS, an Antarctic research group, report May 1. That new branch, about 15 kilometers long, wasn’t on radar maps taken six days earlier, the team says.

If either branch makes it to the edge of Larsen C, the shelf could calve off a 5,000-square-kilometer hunk of ice (SN: 7/25/15, p. 8), creating one of the largest icebergs ever recorded, says glaciologist Adrian Luckman of Swansea University in Wales. “The new branch is heading off more toward the ice front, so it’s more dangerous and more likely to cause this calving event to occur” than the main branch, he says.

Snapping off such a large ice chunk could destabilize the entire ice shelf, Luckman warns. A similar event led to the collapse of Larsen B in 2002. Because Larsen C’s ice floats on the ocean, the loss wouldn’t directly raise sea levels. But its demise could serve as a case study of how other shelves may break apart as rising temperatures melt and weaken Antarctic ice, Luckman says.

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