Climate Change Puts A Third Of Antarctic Ice Shelves At Risk Of Collapsing

by : Emily Brown on : 09 Apr 2021 15:33
Climate Change Puts A Third Of Antarctic Ice Shelves At Risk Of CollapsingPA Images

UK scientists have warned that one-third of the Antarctic’s ice shelves could be at risk of collapse if global temperatures reach 4°C above pre-industrial levels. 

The coasts of Antarctica are surrounded by the permanent floating sheets of ice, but as much as 34% of the area – roughly half a million square kilometres – could break away from the land if temperatures continue to rise.


In the journal Geophysical Research Letters, scientists from the University of Reading warned that a collapse of this magnitude would release ‘unimaginable amounts’ of water into the sea.

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Ella Gilbert, a research scientist in the University of Reading’s meteorology department, described ice shelves as ‘important buffers’ that prevent glaciers on land from flowing into the ocean and contributing to rising sea levels.

Per The Guardian, she continued, ‘When they collapse it’s like a giant cork being removed from a bottle, allowing unimaginable amounts of water from glaciers to pour into the sea. We know that, when melted ice accumulates on the surface of ice shelves, it can make them fracture and collapse spectacularly.’


Gilbert noted that previous research has presented a ‘bigger picture in terms of predicting Antarctic ice shelf decline’, but with the help of the latest modelling techniques the researchers’ new study fills in ‘the finer detail and provide more precise projections’.


Through their modelling, the team identified Larsen C, the largest remaining ice shelf on the peninsula, as being particularly at risk in warmer temperatures. Other ice shelves facing threat from global warming include Shackleton, Pine Island and Wilkins.

Rising temperatures leave the ice shelves vulnerable to meltwater on their surface, which in turn can cause the ice to crack and disintegrate in a process known as hydrofracturing, New Scientist reports.


Gilbert commented:

If temperatures continue to rise at current rates we may lose more Antarctic ice shelves in the coming decades. Limiting warming will not just be good for Antarctica – preserving ice shelves means less global sea level rise, and that’s good for us all.

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The world is currently on track for a temperature rise of 2.9°C rise, but plans to tackle climate change and achieve net-zero goals could cut that the increase 2.1°C.


The researchers’ findings highlight the importance of restricting global temperature rise as per the Paris climate agreement, which aims to limit global warming to less than 2°C above pre-industry levels, as it could halve the area of ice shelves at risk and avoid a drastic rise in sea levels.

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Emily Brown

Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.

Topics: News, Antarctica, Climate Change, Environment, Global Warming, Now


The Guardian and 1 other
  1. The Guardian

    Third of Antarctic ice shelves ‘will collapse amid 4C global heating’

  2. New Scientist

    A third of Antarctic ice shelves risk collapsing due to climate change