Planet Earth

In Photos: Antarctica's Larsen C Ice Shelf Through Time

Snapshot of the rift in the Larsen C on Nov. 10, 2016. Original Image
Credit: John Sontag/NASA

Hanging on by a thread

Snapshot of the rift in the Larsen C on Nov. 10, 2016. Original Image
Credit: John Sontag/NASA

The Antarctic peninsula is made up of several ice shelves, including Larsen A, B and C. Whereas two of these ice shelves (A and B), which are floating extensions of land-based glaciers, collapsed in 1995 and 2002, respectively, Larsen C is still holding on … but only by a thread. Scientists say it could calve a Delaware-size iceberg at any moment now, as a rift continues to grow and the shelf speeds its Here, a snapshot of the rift in Larsen C, taken on Nov. 10, 2016; in early December 2016, the crack was 70 miles (112 km) long.

Iceberg Breaks Free

The European Space Agency's Copernicus Sentinel-1 mission detected the huge chunk of ice that broke off Antarctica's Larsen C ice shelf on July 12, 2017. Original Image
Credit: ESA

The European Space Agency's Copernicus Sentinel-1 mission detected the huge chunk of ice that broke off Antarctica's Larsen C ice shelf on July 12, 2017. The iceberg holds 1.1 trillion tons (1 trillion metric tons) of ice and would fill up Lake Erie twice, researchers say.

Bouncing baby ... iceberg

An instrument aboard NASA's Aqua satellite captured this image on July 12, 2017, revealing the giant iceberg that just calved from Antarctica's Larsen C ice shelf. Original Image
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

An instrument aboard NASA's Aqua satellite captured this image on July 12, 2017, revealing the giant iceberg that just calved from Antarctica's Larsen C ice shelf. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) measured infrared signals called "brightness temperature," which can distinguish between warmer and cooler surfaces. In the false-color image, the blue indicates the warmest surfaces, which include the new iceberg and the Larsen C ice shelf. The blue also shows areas of open water, or open water covered by a thin layer of ice. The lighter blue areas are cooler surfaces, such as thicker ice, according to NASA's Earth Observatory.

Losing mass

Glaciers and ice shelves along the coast of west Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula that are susceptible to rapid changes are key targets during Operation Ice Bridge. Original Image
Credit: NASA

The Larsen ice shelf sits along the northeast coast of the Antarctic peninsula. Since 1995, it has lost 75 percent of its mass.

September issue

Larsen-C Ice Shelf Crack (29 September 2016), Antarctica. Original Image
Credit: Paul Quast/Landsat 8/USGS

On Sept. 29, 2016, when this image was captured, the rift in the Larsen C ice shelf had grown to 80 miles (130 km).

Post calving

An image of the rift in the Larsen C on Nov. 10, 2016. Original Image
Credit: Digital Mapping System

Another image of the Larsen C rift from Nov. 10, 2016. Once Larsen C calves an iceberg, scientists are concerned the ice shelf will begin to retreat. "Iceberg calving is a normal part of the glacier life cycle, and there is every chance that Larsen C will remain stable and this ice will regrow," Paul Holland, a BAS ice and ocean modeler, said in a statement. "However, it is also possible that this iceberg calving will leave Larsen C in an unstable configuration. If that happens, further iceberg calving could cause a retreat of Larsen C."

Gaping rift

Snapshot of the rift in the Larsen C on Nov. 10, 2016. Original Image
Credit: John Sontag/NASA

The wider part of the rift in the Larsen C can be seen on Nov. 10, 2016, in this mosaic image created from multiple satellite snapshots.

Holding back the flood

A mosaic of a wider part of the rift in the Larsen C on Nov. 10, 2016, created from multiple images. Original Image
Credit: Digital Mapping System

Though the collapse of ice shelves doesn't directly contribute to sea-level rise, as the ice is already floating on the sea, they may indirectly result in a rising sea. For instance, when Larsen A and B calved icebergs, the result was a significant acceleration of the flow of land-based glaciers behind them; that led to more ice flowing into the ocean, and in turn, sea-level rise, according to the British Antarctic Survey.

Summer crack

The rift is visible in these images acquired on August 22, 2016, with the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) on NASA’s Terra satellite. Original Image
Credit: NASA

The rift is visible in these images acquired on Aug. 22, 2016, with an imaging instrument aboard NASA's Terra satellite. The instrument has nine cameras pointing in different directions to give different perspectives of a landscape. This natural-color image relied on the instrument's downward-looking (nadir) camera. The ice shelf is visible on the left, and thinner sea ice appears on the right.

Different angles

The rift is visible in these images acquired on August 22, 2016, with the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) on NASA’s Terra satellite. Original Image
Credit: NASA

Another image of the rift seen on Aug. 22, 2016, but from a different perspective; the composite image includes snapshots from the Terra satellite imager's backward-, vertical- and forward-pointing cameras. Rougher surfaces appear pink, while smoother areas are purple. Though sea ice is generally rougher than the ice shelf, the one exception is the shelf's rift; the rough texture of the rift indicates it is actively growing, scientists said. The crack grew 13 miles (22 kilometers) over the prior six months, and in August 2016, it extended some 80 miles (130 km).

Fast ice

The Larsen Ice Shelf is situated along the northeastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the fastest-warming places on the planet. Original Image
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

The Antarctic peninsula, where the Larsen ice shelf resides, is one of the fastest-warming places on the planet. This mosaic image is centered on the northern part of the ice shelf. Comprising four natural-color images captured by the Operation Land Imager on the Landsat-8 satellite on Jan. 6 and Jan. 8, 2016, the mosaic shows the remaining ice of Larsen B and Larsen B. Light-blue areas represent sea ice anchored to the coastline or ice shelf (called fast ice) and covered in meltwater. White areas indicate fast ice covered by windblown snow.

Growing crack

Larsen-C Ice Shelf Crack (8 March 2017), Antarctica. Original Image
Credit: Paul Quast/Landsat 8/USGS

The main Larsen C rift extended a whopping 109 miles (175 km) as of March 3, 2017. The ice shelf, and rift, are shown on March 8, 2017, in images snapped by instruments aboard the Landsat-8 satellite.

Speeding up

This mosaic of images from the Sentinel-1 satellite show the change in speed of the Larsen C ice sheet from early to late June 2017. Original Image
Credit: Sentinel-1/MIDAS/Swansea University

Now, researchers with the U.K.-based Project MIDAS have observed that the seaward side of the rift on the Larsen C ice shelf has tripled in speed; it is flowing 33 feet (10 m) per day as of June 24 through June 27.

The main rift

A satellite image showing the giant (and growing) crack in the Larsen C ice shelf on April 6, 2017. Original Image
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

A satellite image showing the giant (and growing) crack in the Larsen C ice shelf on April 6, 2017.

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Author Bio


Jeanna Bryner, Live Science Managing Editor

Before becoming managing editor, Jeanna served as a reporter for Live Science and SPACE.com for about three years. Previously she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a Master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a science journalism degree from New York University. Follow Jeanna on Google+