Yes, a Huge Iceberg Just Broke Off in Antarctica - But It's Not Quite the End of the World

July 12th 2017

Mike Rothschild

After years of expansion, a huge crack in the Larsen C ice shelf at the northwestern tip of Antarctica finally broke open, sending a massive iceberg, weighing as much as one trillion tons, into the southern Atlantic Ocean. 

The crack had formed some time in 2010, and steadily grew in size over the next several years, threatening to break off from of the ice shelf—the floating plane of ice formed where glacier meets ocean. Finally, some time around July 10, the gigantic iceberg calved off, expelling a piece of ice the size of a small American state. The event was confirmed on the July 12 by NASA, and immediately sent people into a panic, particularly because of the iceberg's size.

While many observers saw the iceberg as a sign as an unsettling result of climate change, researchers well-versed in the particulars of how glaciers and ice shelves work cautioned that it's not time to head into the survival bunker just yet.

"There is nothing in this for people to be worried about," Swansea University glaciologist Adrian Luckman told ATTN: over email. Luckman has been a lead researcher on the Larsen C, using both satellite images and on-site observations to study the ice shelf. To him and other experts, an iceberg calving off an ice shelf is a natural occurrence, and this one is making headlines almost entirely because of its size. 

In academic journal The Conversation, Luckman attempts to bring some scientific rigor to a story driven by fear. "[T]he Larsen C rift and iceberg 'calving' is not a warning of imminent sea level rise, and any link to climate change is far from straightforward," he writes. "The development of rifts and the calving of icebergs is part of the natural cycle of an ice shelf."

Because of the size and thickness of the ice shelf, it's unlikely that warming temperatures on either the surface or in the ocean contributed to the rift. However, the sheer size of the iceberg has made it hard to stick to these scientific considerations. As Luckman told ATTN:, "we focus on the size and mass of this iceberg because everyone loves an iceberg story, and this is a big one!"

How big is it? Various outlets have pegged the iceberg as "twice the size of Luxembourg," "a quarter the size of Wales," "four times as big as London," and "the size of Delaware," while containing "twice the volume of water as Lake Erie

So, ok, it's pretty big. But no matter how large the broken off chuck of Larsen C is, there will be "unquestionably no direct effect on sea level because the iceberg is already afloat and displacing its own weight in seawater," Luckman writes.

Ultimately, Luckman believes that it could be years before we know the iceberg's ultimate fate. It will likely continue to drift away and break up into smaller chunks, and "if there are any repercussions [to the calving], they will be a long time in the future and rather small," he told ATTN:. The biggest immediate risk will be to cruise ships who sail to Antarctica. 

Still, while the Larsen C iceberg might not be a direct threat to coastal cities, that doesn't mean climate change isn't having an effect on the icy continent. In fact, losing almost 12% of its mass puts the Larsen C shelf in a very vulnerable position because of warming temperatures. If more of it breaks off, glaciers behind it would melt directly into the Atlantic, risking a higher sea level. 

As University of California, Irvine, professor Eric Rignot told ATTN:, the iceberg breaking off is "the signature of ongoing climate warming in the Antarctic, part of a long term evolution in Antarctica we have been following for decades." Antarctica is warming at one of the highest rates on the planet and the main body of the continent is rapidly losing ice. This means wildlife populations in the area have dropped, and the melting of floating ice around the continent could disrupt ocean currents around the world.  

"In effect, this event is a proxy for future larger scale events that will happen as Antarctica keeps warming up," Rignot said. "This is a wake up call. Antarctica is changing, for real."