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One of Antarctica's Largest Ice Shelves Close to Calving

02 June 2017

A crack in the Larson C ice shelf reached within 8 miles (13 kilometers) of the ocean after expanding 11 miles (17 kilometers) in just the last week, scientists with Project MIDAS at the University of Swansea in Britain said on Thursday.

The process, known as calving, happens periodically but researchers are watching closely to see whether climate change is affecting the phenomenon. Ice shelves are already sitting on top of water.

"The rift has now fully breached the zone of soft "suture" ice originating at the Cole Peninsula and there appears to be very little to prevent the iceberg from breaking away completely", Project Midas wrote.

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"The rift tip appears to have turned significantly toward the ice front, indicating that the time of calving (breaking away) is probably very close", Adrian Luckman, lead researcher in UK-based research team Project MIDAS, said in a statement.

Larsen C is the most northerly of the Antarctic ice shelves, as well as the largest.

In the days leading up to President Donald Trump's announcement on whether or not he will continue the participation of the United States in the Paris Climate Agreement, a crack in the Larsen C Ice Shelf has rapidly expanded.

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A report published past year by the National Snow and Ice Data Center ominously signaled the potential "catastrophic" scenario that could result if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet continued to deteriorate.

An ice shelf is a thick floating platform of ice that forms where a glacier or ice sheet flows down a coastline and onto the ocean surface. "Even the sea level contribution of this area is not on anybody's radar; it's just a big geographical event that will change the landscape there". However, it is widely accepted that warming ocean and atmospheric temperatures have been a factor in earlier disintegrations of ice shelves elsewhere on the Antarctic Peninsula, most notably Larsen A in 1995 and Larsen B in 2002.

Scientists have been monitoring the crack in Larsen C for several years, but the rift experienced a major growth spurt this past December when it lengthened by 12 miles (20 km).

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It's not clear how much of a role global warming is playing in forming and propelling the Larsen C rift, considering that such events can occur naturally. The rising temperatures are contributing to the breakup of ancient ice shelves.

One of Antarctica's Largest Ice Shelves Close to Calving