Monday, December 4

Concern in the scientific community: East Antarctica is cracking

East Antarctica melting. / POT

The ice cap is five times larger than the western part and if it were to melt, the seas around the world would rise 50 meters

Jose A. Gonzalez

Heat waves aren’t just for the summer or the desert. Last week, the mercury in thermometers certified an increasingly frequent trend on the planet: temperatures are getting higher and higher.

Last Friday, March 18, several stations in Antarctica measured temperatures 40ºC higher than usual, while in the Arctic the thermal anomaly was 30ºC above average.

These anomalies, especially in the Arctic, have been continuous in recent years. However, the increase in temperature in Antarctica was not so normal. Experts, for the time being, separate these episodes from climate change.

But, these heat waves have not only left their mark on historical temperature records, they are also noticeable on the polar surface. The frozen continent cracks.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology has certified that, for the first time in history, an ice pack in East Antarctica has broken away from the continental block. With 1,200 square kilometers of extension, ten times the city of Bilbao and Seville.

A slow-cooked disunity, the first cracks were observed in the mid-2000s. Since then, the icy surface began to gradually diminish until this March, Conger separated definitively from the South Pole to sail to drift it.

slow thaw

The Antarctic continent is the southernmost region on Earth and has 14.2 million square kilometers. A gigantic platform divided into three parts: the Antarctic Peninsula, Western Antarctica, bathed by the Pacific Ocean and the Amundsen Sea, and the western one, facing the Indian Ocean.

Precisely, the latter, the closest to Australia, began to reduce since the 1970s. This melting accelerated in 2020 “where it lost approximately half every month or so,” Australian scientists point out.

The cracking of this block of ice is not one of the largest suffered on the Antarctic continent. In the early 2000s, the Larsen B platform, about 3,250 square kilometers, collapsed. “The problem is not the size of the new landslide, but the place where it occurred,” say scientists from the University of Minnesota.

To date, the last landslides or cracks in the polar surface have occurred west of the transantarctic mountains in the westernmost part of the platform. “East Antarctica is beginning to change and is losing mass,” reveal researchers at the Scripps Polar Center of the University of California in the United States.

Ice shelves, permanent floating sheets of ice attached to the land, take thousands of years to form and act as dams that retain snow and ice. Its melting has a direct and worrying influence on the rise in sea level.

In the 20th century, East Antarctica barely warmed, but between 2002 and 2020 the frozen continent has lost an average of 149 billion tons of ice per year, according to NASA data.

The melting of this area is of particular concern to scientists, since the ice cap is five times greater than the western part of Antarctica and if the eastern part melted, the seas around the world would rise by 50 meters. “Although it is a process that takes place over millennia,” the experts point out.

“atmospheric river”

“Unlikely” and “unthinkable”. These are some of the words that came to the minds of scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado as they viewed temperatures recently recorded by their measurement tools.

historical temperatures

  • Vostok (3,489 meters) reached -17.7ºC

  • Concordia (3,234 meters) recorded -12.2ºC

They probably rubbed their eyes at the results or had to check them a second time. Last week, what’s called an atmospheric river dumped a lot of warm air, and even rain instead of snow, across parts of East Antarctica, reaching temperatures well above normal.

Variations that have even come close to the melting temperature of ice. Temperatures reached -12.2ºC on Friday, March 18, 40ºC above normal, at Concordia station. That same day, temperatures reached 0ºC at Vostok station, surpassing its historical record in 65 years of measurements.

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