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Scientists make concerning discovery deep below Antarctic ice shelf the size of France: 'We found that the whole shelf suddenly moves'

The shelf can move up to 16 inches in 10 minutes.

The shelf can move up to 16 inches in 10 minutes.

Photo Credit: iStock

The biggest ice shelf in Antarctica is slipping — a first-of-its-kind discovery related to our warming world.

What's happening?

A study published in Geophysical Research Letters in March showed that the Ross Ice Shelf slips daily, reported Washington University in St. Louis, in a story posted by SciTechDaily. According to Britannica, the ice shelf is the largest in Antarctica at about 182,000 square miles, which is nearly the size of France (around 212,000 square miles), per the CIA's The World Factbook. These slips can precipitate icequakes, which are similar to earthquakes, and fractures.

The shelf can move up to about 16 inches (40 centimeters) in 10 minutes. The paper examined slips caused by the Whillans Ice Stream, one of a handful of ice streams that flow into and through the shelf.

Ice streams flow through ice shelves, and ice and sediment is ultimately dumped into the sea, per AntarcticGlaciers.org. However, the shelves hold them and glaciers back, increasing inland ice, preventing it from melting and contributing to sea level rise.

"We found that the whole shelf suddenly moves about 6 to 8 centimeters [2.4-3.1 inches] once or twice a day, triggered by a slip on an ice stream that flows into the ice shelf," lead author Doug Wiens of Washington University said. "These sudden movements could potentially play a role in triggering icequakes and fractures in the ice shelf.

"... I've published several papers about the Whillans Ice Stream slip events in the past, but had not discovered that the whole Ross Ice Shelf also moves until now."

Why is Antarctic ice important?

The slips start with a huge portion of the stream — over 100 kilometers by 100 kilometers (more than 62 miles by 62 miles) — sticking while the rest of it continues to move forward. That large section then "lurches forward against the Ross Ice Shelf," according to the outlet.

The SciTechDaily story called the study "significant" because of the Ross Ice Shelf's size. It also noted researchers are concerned about Antarctic ice shelves because of rising global temperatures.

Antarctica is being watched closely as an indicator for the rest of the world. If ice is melting there, the coldest place on Earth, sea levels will rise, and other problems could emerge.

For example, Antarctic sea ice that melted in the summer of 2023 did not reform in the winter — an event scientists expect to happen once every 7.5 million years. As a result of sea ice melting, emperor penguin colonies suffered extreme breeding collapses. The "Doomsday Glacier" is also melting away, potentially threatening island nations and some of the world's greatest cities with sea level rise.

What's being done about ice melt?

The scientists said the ice slips are not directly caused by rising global temperatures, SciTechDaily reported, but the slips could lead to events that precipitate collapse.

"At this point, icequakes and fractures are just part of the normal life of the ice shelf," Wiens said. "There is a worry that the Ross Ice Shelf will someday disintegrate, since other smaller and thinner ice shelves have done so. We also know that the Ross Ice Shelf disintegrated during the last interglacial period — about 120,000 years ago — and that caused rapid ice loss to the other glaciers and ice streams feeding into it."

A Dutch startup is also trialing a technology that would help thicken Arctic sea ice, but the most impactful long-term solution to avoid large-scale melting of ice near the poles is to reduce the Earth's average temperature — and phasing out dirty fuel sources is the most direct way to do that.

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