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Ice Shelf Disintegration

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Ice Shelf Disintegration

Zack Fogarty

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West Antarctica has been disintegrating quickly over the past several decades. Most people are aware of the situation of rising temperatures and melting ice, but few are aware of just how out of hand it has gotten. Antarctica’s western peninsula is being constantly heated by the northern air and water that circle the continent, and the average annual temperature of the area has risen nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950; the winters have warmed by nearly 9 degrees. Not only do these higher temperatures lead to shrinking and weakening ice shelves, but they also reduce the period of time every year that ice shelves have to repair themselves. Since around 1990, four entire ice shelves have collapsed on the east side of the peninsula. Each collapse led to a the release of a swarm of glaciers; these glaciers are on the smaller side and won’t do much to change the world climate by themselves, but if larger ice shelves were to collapse it could be disastrous. The Larsen C ice shelf, for example, is the fourth largest ice shelf in all of Antarctica and the only remaining ice shelf on the tip of the antarctic peninsula. In the summer of 2017 it lost a trillion ton chunk of ice, with a surface area equal to that of Delaware, nearly 6,000 square kilometers. This could foreshadow the collapse of other large ice shelves in West Antarctica, specifically around the Amundsen Sea.

The Amundsen sea isn’t subject to the same kind of warm air and water flow against the edges and surface of the ice shelves but rather to warm water that heats the ice from underneath. A northern section of the Pine Island ice shelf for example, collapsed 3 years ago due to the flow of warmer waters. The waters under this shelf are only about 5 degrees Fahrenheit above freezing, but over 3,000 cubic miles of water arrive every year, meaning that the underside of the ice shelf is subject to the same energy output of a hundred nonstop running nuclear power plants.

The problem with the collapse of ice shelves isn’t just concerning the effect the ice shelf will have on sea levels. The ice shelves themselves mostly rest in the water already; the real danger comes from the fact that there are glaciers being held in place by the many ice shelves around Antarctica. The Pine Island Ice Shelf, for example, is one of several ice shelves that hold in place the West Antarctic Ice Sheet: a massive glacier that covers twice the area of Texas. A large portion of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet actually rests in the water, on a basin that drops around 5,000 feet below sea level. If the portion of this glacier vulnerable to the warm water were to collapse, sea levels could rise by an astonishing 10 feet, resulting in flooded coasts across the globe.

The rate at which ice shelves have collapsed is also accelerating. In 1994, about 6 cubic miles of ice disappeared, and in 2012, nearly 75 cubic miles of ice disappeared. By 2100, the melting ice from Antarctica alone could raise sea level by 3 feet, or a foot and a half at the least. The ice melting in other parts of the world could double these figures, and sea levels will continue to rise well through the 22nd century.

With all this heat weakening the Antarctic ice shelves, you have to ask exactly where it’s coming from. The heating of the ice shelves starts with good old fossil fuels. People are always talking about the atmosphere heating up, but in reality, the oceans take the brunt of atmospheric heating. And as our oceans heat up, new currents can start to form, changing the entire ecosystem of the ocean. These new currents that threaten the southern ice cap now, are called circumpolar currents. They carry warm water from the north, near Africa and South America. These currents are responsible for the majority of the melted ice, but that’s not the only thing that makes them dangerous. Their real danger factor comes from the fact that cutting emissions won’t instantly stop these currents. In fact, it’s hard to tell what exactly will stop these currents, but returning the oceans to their normal temperatures is the best answer right now.

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Ice Shelf Disintegration