‘Behemoth’ iceberg officially breaks from Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf — 7 things to know

Combined ShapeCaption
Large Iceberg Close to Splitting from Antarctic Shelf

This story has been updated.

A massive iceberg the size of Delaware or Lake Ontario broke from Antarctica's massive Larsen C ice shelf between Monday and Wednesday, scientists announced Wednesday.

The European Space Agency (ESA) issued a press release Wednesday, announcing the "behemoth" iceberg expected to be named A68 finally broke off, "changing the outline of the Antarctic Peninsula forever." The event, witnessed by ESA's Copernicus Sentinel-1 mission satellite, is part of a natural cycle of iceberg calving.

Here are seven things to know about the cracking Larsen C ice shelf:

What is it?

Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf is one of the largest ice shelves in the region, spanning approximately 21,000 square miles.

But in recent years, the ice shelf has experienced a rapid rift growth widening to more than 1,000 feet.

In June, satellite images from the Impact of Melt on Ice Shelf Dynamics and Stability Project (or Project MIDAS) showed the shelf's rift split turned north and had begun making its way toward the Southern Ocean.

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How big was the crack in the Larsen C ice shelf?

The deep crack extended over the course of 120 miles and, according to the ESA, only three miles separated the Larsen C crack from open water one week ago.

When did the ice shelf calve and give way to the colossal iceberg?

In June, Project MIDAS experts said the iceberg's outer end was moving at its highest speed ever.

The massive iceberg officially broke off between Monday and Wednesday, witnessed by the ESA’s Sentinel-1 satellite, which provided a high-resolution look at its breaking from the Larsen C ice shelf.

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How big is the Larsen C iceberg?

Huge. The 2,200-square mile iceberg weighs 1 trillion ton (twice the volume of Lake Erie) and is nearly the size of Delaware.

From ClimateCentral.org last week:

The iceberg is expected to have enough ice to fill more than 463 million Olympic swimming pools. Or put another way, it's enough to cover all 50 states in 4.6 inches of ice, allowing you to skate coast-to-coast and take victory laps around Hawaii and Alaska.

Where is the iceberg going after breaking off?

The iceberg will begin in the Southern Ocean’s Weddell Sea and escape its shallow waters as it heads into the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (or into the South Atlantic).

But whole or in pieces, the iceberg could reach as far as the Falkland Islands, more than 1,000 miles away from the Larsen C ice shelf, according to the ESA.

Does the iceberg breaking off the Larsen C ice shelf harmful in anyway?

“Previous events further north on the Larsen A and B shelves, captured by ESA’s ERS and Envisat satellites, indicate that when a large portion of an ice shelf is lost, the flow of glaciers behind can accelerate, contributing to sea-level rise,” the ESA announced.

In addition, the colossal iceberg “could pose a hazard to maritime traffic.”

If the iceberg breaks into smaller pieces, ocean currents could drag the iceberg north, posing a hazard for ships, Anna Hogg from the University of Leeds said last week in an earlier ESA news release.

What does this event say about the impact of climate change?

It isn’t uncommon for icebergs to calve off Antarctica, but some scientists say this colossal iceberg’s event could mean that high temperatures are melting Antarctica’s ice and causing it to fall apart.

Eric Rignot, NASA and University of California, Irvine expert on Antarctica, told the Washington Post that the event is certainly due to climate warning, citing that Larsen C was next in line after the collapse of Larsen A in 1995 and Larsen B in 2002, both situated north of Larsen C.

But Antarctic scientist Helen Amana Fricker wrote in the Guardian that the enormous Larsen C rift is "just ordinary housekeeping for this part of Antarctica," saying its size is no match for the size of the entire ice sheet.

And while Larsen C is "next in line," Fricker told the Washington Post that instead of getting thinner (a sign of melting), the ice shelf has actually gotten thicker in recent years.

“We do not need to press the panic button for Larsen C, Fricker, a professor at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, wrote. “While ice fracturing and surface melting may sound like signs of climate change in action in Antarctica, they are really part of the background against which we must look for real change.”

Read Fricker's full remarks at the Guardian.