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  Geotimes - April 2008 - Chip off the old block

Chip off the old block

In March 2002, a chunk of ice nearly the size of Rhode Island broke off the north end of Antarctica, disintegrating into thousands of icebergs. According to Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, it was the largest ice shelf collapse in recorded history and the first time that shelf had retreated in 10,000 years. Many people blamed global warming for the collapse: After all, the summer of 2001 was one of the warmest on record, and by January 2002, the ice shelf — named Larsen B — was covered with melt pools. New research, however, suggests that other factors, such as the spacing of fractures on the ice shelf, may have been just as important.

The collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf
The collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf The collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf
MODIS images courtesy of NASA’s Terra satellite, supplied by Ted Scambos,
National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado, Boulder.
These pictures — taken between Nov. 22, 2001, and March 7, 2002 — depict the collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf.

Scambos and Neil Glasser of Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom reviewed satellite images dating back to 1997. In a paper published in January’s Journal of Glaciology, they acknowledge that climate change played a role in the ice shelf’s decline, but they also suggest that oceanic, atmospheric and glaciological factors that had been going on for decades contributed to the breakup. Melting from higher ocean temperatures or even a gradual decline in the ice mass of the peninsula helped push the ice shelf to the brink, the researchers say. They add, however, that Larsen C, the ice shelf to the south, does not show the same signs of an imminent breakup.

Cassandra Willyard

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