A key Antarctic ice shelf is breaking much faster than scientists originally predicted, a new study found.
Scientists now fear the Pine Island Glacier’s ice shelf may start to collapse faster than expected due to climate change. The ice shelf acts as a barrier for the rapidly melting glacier, NBC News reported.
The acceleration of the loss of sea ice was first noticed in 2017. Between that date and 2020, the sea ice retreated by nearly 12 miles, according to the Science Advances study, published on Friday.
Researchers observed the crumbling shelf on time-lapse video from a European satellite, which takes photos of the structure every six days, according to NBC News.
“You can see things tearing apart,” the study’s lead author Ian Joughin, a glaciologist at the University of Washington, told the outlet. “So it almost seems that the acceleration itself is weakening the glacier.… And so far we’ve lost maybe 20 percent of the main shelf.
It is believed that three major breakthrough events that occurred between 2017 and 2020 brought the shelf closer to wear and tear. These events caused icebergs more than 5 miles long and 22 miles wide that eventually collapsed into several smaller pieces, Joughin told NBC News.
“It is not at all inconceivable that the entire plateau could give way and disappear within a few years,” Joughin said. “I would say it’s far, but not very far.”
Joughin also found that two points on the Pine Island Glacier were heading out to sea 12% faster as of 2017.
“So that means 12 percent more ice from Pine Island going into the ocean that wasn’t there before,” he said.
The Pine Island Glacier is one of the glaciers in West Antarctica that scientists fear it will lose. It contains around 180 trillion tonnes of ice and is believed to be responsible for nearly a quarter of the continent’s ice loss.
“These scientific findings continue to highlight the vulnerability of Antarctica, a major reservoir for potential sea level rise,” said Twila Moon, a National Snow and Ice Data scientist who was not part of the research. “Again and again, other research has confirmed that the future evolution of Antarctica will depend on human greenhouse gas emissions. “