On March 15th, 2022, alarming satellite imagery surfaced showing that one of Antarctica’s largest ice selfs, the Conger ice shelf, had suffered a major collapse. The Conger ice shelf is a large mass of floating ice measuring around 463 square miles, or roughly about the size of Rome, and is located in the eastern region of the continent.
According to studies and satellite imaging, the entire ice shelf collapsed, detaching itself from the remaining band occupying East Antarctica. On March 18th, 2022, just days after the collapse, the Concordia Research station recorded an astounding high temperature of 11.3°F, shocking many scientists who study the area. For comparison, the seasonal average for the region is typically around -50°F. While the scientific community is still gathering data surrounding the collapse, rising temperatures and abnormal weather events described as an “atmospheric river” are likely to have attributed to this monumental event.
Collapse Preceded by Gradual Disintegration
Over the past 30 years, the tip of the continental shelf has been disintegrating into smaller icebergs (an event known as calving), and is causing growing concerns over global warming. On March 5th and 7th, satellites observed two major calving events that detached Conger from the Bowman sheet. A week later, the structure fell. At the time of its collapse, Conger had already been reduced to a strip 31 mile-long and 12.4 mile-wide.
The collapse of the Conger ice shelf could provide insight into what the future holds. Melting glaciers and icebergs have been observed over the last four decades since the birth of satellite imaging in the 1970s, however, the rate at which major ice shelves are breaking apart seems to be exponentially growing.
The Conger Ice Shelf Collapse Is One of Many
The ice shelf is what scientists refer to as “a safety band” for Antarctica as it supports the upstream flow of bordering ice back to the larger shelf, keeping it insulated from warmer water. Additionally, Antarctica loses very little ice from surface melting, making the safety band even more important to the integrity of the ice caps. Most of the melting and calving takes place underneath the floating ice sheet. It's natural for ice to break and detach, and the continental shelf goes through cycles of slow growth and isolated calving.
However, glaciologists have observed more occurrences of total disintegration in recent decades. The detachment of Conger is one of many collapses glaciologists have witnessed. Other famous losses include:
Cook Ice Shelf (1970s)
Prince Gustav Ice Shelf (1989 to 1995)
Larsen A Ice Shelf (1995)
Larsen B Ice Shelf (2002)
Wilkins Ice Shelf (2008 to 2009)
Ice shelves have been breaking away along the Antarctica Peninsula and East Antarctica alike. Glaciologists investigate each collapse independently and collectively to determine existing series and causes.
Taken together, the collapses observed over recent decades suggest changes in underlying environmental conditions like the ocean and atmospheric temperatures. Most glaciologists see continued ice loss as a sign of global warming.
Implications of the Conger Ice Shelf Collapse
The Conger ice shelf was relatively small at the time of disintegration, so its collapse isn't expected to have major long-term effects. Due to its shape, the ice shelf was likely not crucial for buttressing the upstream flow of ice, however, it is one of the most significant collapses observed since the fall of Larsen B in the early 2000s. Glaciologists have watched the Conger ice shelf shrink gradually from the mid-2000 until the beginning of 2020.
According to Dr. Catherine Colello Walker of NASA and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Conger ice shelf appeared to be less than half its January surface area by March 4th.
What It Means For The Future
University of Minnesota research professor Peter Neff notes the collapse was "a surprise”, given that Eastern Antarctica is seen as a solid, immovable ice cube, and such rapid ice loss draws growing concern.
If the collapse is due to extreme temperatures of the mid-March atmospheric river event, it should drive more research into the processes taking place in Eastern Antarctica.
Ice loss can raise the sea level by meters, submerging entire cities and triggering massive environmental changes. Melting ice and rising temperatures also impact the life forms that have depended on existing natural cycles.
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