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Antarctica’s Brunt Ice Shelf Finally Breaks – Spawns Iceberg Twice the Size of New York City

January 12, 2021

The break occurred along a rift known as Chasm 1. This chasm started growing in the 1970s, followed by a period of dormancy, and then resumed growth in 2012. It continued to lengthen for almost a decade, extending by as much as 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) per year in early 2019. But even this growth spurt slowed. That is, until the 2022–2023 Antarctic summer when the chasm sped up and ultimately broke past the McDonald Ice Rumples—a submerged knob of bedrock that served as a pinning point for this part of the shelf. Several factors may have contributed to the completion of the break, including a lack of sea ice to help resist, or “push back,” against the stresses on the shelf ice in 2023.

The second image, acquired with the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8, shows the extent of Chasm 1 on January 12, 2021, about two years prior to the break. Notice several other cracks across the northeast part of the shelf. The “new crack” in that image ultimately separated in February 2021 and formed Iceberg A-74.

“The rapid formation of subsequent rifts—to long-standing Chasm 1 and 2—and recent calving to the northeast makes it clear that these shelf areas are dynamic with poorly understood stresses,” said Christopher Shuman, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County, glaciologist based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The breaking (calving) of icebergs from ice shelves is part of a natural, cyclical process of growth and decay at the limits of Earth’s ice sheets. As glacial ice flows from land and spreads out over the sea, shelf areas farthest from shore grow thinner. These areas are stressed by storms and tides and thin as they are melted from above or below, ultimately making them more prone to forming rifts and breaking away.

As for the “new” Brunt, it remains to be seen how the complex floating glacial ice responds to the most recent calving event. According to Shuman: “We have no solid idea what ‘normal’ really is for this unusual ice shelf.”

NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kathryn Hansen.



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