In the eastern part of Antarctica, an ice shelf roughly the size of New York City collapsed in mid-March, becoming the first to fall in this region and sending alarm to scientists, multiple news outlets have reported.
Ice shelves are parts of larger glaciers or are large areas of ice connected to land that stick out over the top of ocean water, creating a type of shelf structure above it. This particular shelf, called the Conger ice shelf, was a part of Bowman Island and Antarctica’s continental ice sheet before its disintegration into the ocean, The Conversation said.
According to CNN, this part of Antarctica has recently experienced a bizarre warm front, with temperatures reaching over 70 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average for an extended period of time. The combination of this, a recent decline in the amount of sea ice in the region and the waves that have been hitting the ice shelf due to strong winds is said to be the reasoning behind its collapse.
“Sea ice serves as a buffer, damping the swells that roll in to the coast from the Southern Ocean. With little ice, and with the wind stirring the ocean even more, the floating shelf flexed more than it normally would,” New York Times reporter Henry Fountain wrote.
According to CBS News, researchers had pegged this eastern part of Antarctica to be relatively stable, with little concern about losing ice structures. According to The New York Times, there has recently been some gain in ice mass in that region, The New York Times reported, so this particular event has raised alarm from scientists.
Talbot Andrews, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at UConn, primarily focuses her studies on how public policy and the environment affect the public’s views on climate change.
“We’ve been really worried about the West Antarctic ice sheet, and we’ve been using that as this big indicator, so seeing this collapse of the East Antarctic ice sheet is super, super concerning and really highlights that while we know a lot about these physical systems, they’re just so complex and we’re not as good at predicting these big tipping points as we’d like to think that we are,” Andrews said.
Countries, specifically coastal communities, will begin to feel the consequence of these collapses in the form of sea level rise. As the ice is now submerged in the ocean water, it will begin to melt, adding more water to the ocean and thus aiding sea level rise.
“For example, here in Connecticut, if we get enough sea level rise, like when hurricane season comes and we see much worse flooding like we did this last year, that’s a downstream consequence of things that are happening with these glaciers. I don’t think the glaciers are going to change people’s opinions, but the way that they change the sea level, we’ll start to see people paying attention to those changes down the road,” Andrews said.
Ben Albee, a University of Connecticut sixth semester political science and environmental studies double major, has been involved in activism work at UConn, particularly with work that revolves around the environment.
“My reaction was like, ‘We’ve been knew,’” Albee said. “I mean, scientists have been saying for years that the globe is warming up and polar ice caps are melting and that is only going to get worse, and it’s happening. So honestly I didn’t have much of a reaction specifically to the East Antarctica ice shelf melting. It was just kind of like, we’ve expected this.”
Albee has been focusing his activism work specifically towards UConn and thinking of ways that changes can be made to the university to help fight the climate crisis.
“It’s useful information to know what’s going on in the world, but I think for activists we can be so burnt out from hearing everything that’s happening that it’s almost like, ‘Okay, let’s just keep doing the good work we’re doing,” Albee said. “I know a bunch of people who are calling on the board of trustees to make the energy plan that we have renewable energy. You can’t control global things, you can’t stop Antarctica from melting by yourself. The best thing you can do is work within your local community, foster that community and the activism that you do to make an example of your own university or town.”