What you need to know, currently.
Scientists reported that the Conger Ice Shelf in East Antarctica collapsed, last Friday. First mapped in 1955, the ice shelf was once the size of New York City. It disintegrated within just a few days around March 15, as temperatures in Antarctica hit record highs— rising to 11.3°F, roughly 70 degrees above normal the temperature for March.
The ice shelf began shrinking around the mid-2000s, but appeared fairly stable until 2020.
“We still treat East Antarctica like this massive, high, dry, cold and immovable ice cube,” Peter Neff, a glaciologist and professor at University of Minnesota, told The Guardian. “Current understanding largely suggests you can’t get the same rapid rates of ice loss [as in West Antarctica] due to the geometry of the ice and bedrock there.”
The current understanding of the Antarctic climate may be outdated, however. And this heat wave—spurred by a moist, atmospheric river that trapped a gust of hot air—could become a more common occurrence.
While Arctic ice melt is concerning, and certainly a sign of a warming planet, it does not provoke the same panic as the disintegration of large Antarctic glaciers. Arctic ice forms mostly at sea. Antarctic ice is largely land-based; when it melts, the sea rises. Scientists are particularly concerned about the Thwaites Glacier—often called “The Doomsday Glacier.” A massive block of ice, roughly the size of Florida, about two thirds of the glacier have already disintegrated. Should it continue apace, its collapse could raise global sea levels by up to two feet.
“Despite being far away, the poles and their changes have and will control the climate on our planet, and hence our own society,” Marco Tedesco, a climate scientist at Columbia University told the school’s Glacierhub blog. “The collapse of Thwaites can catalyze sea level rise, therefore accelerating the damage to our society by climate change.” —Rebecca McCarthy