The ice shelf holding together one of Antarctica’s largest glaciers is breaking apart rapidly as scientists worry it could shorten the timeline for its eventual collapse into the sea.
Satellite images of Pine Island Glacier taken between 2015 and 2020 show the rapid break up of the ice shelf’s edge. A study by Washington University reveals the ice shelf lost about one-fifth of its area from 2017 to 2020, mostly in three dramatic breaks.
The Pine Island Glacier covers 68,000 square miles in the West Antarctic and contains 180 trillion tons of ice, according to LiveScience.
If the glacier falls into the ocean, the average global sea level could rise by a total of 50 cm (around 20 inches).
Scientists worry that once the ice shelf gives way, the glacier will quickly follow.
“We may not have the luxury of waiting for slow changes on Pine Island; things could actually go much quicker than expected,” said Ian Joughin, a glaciologist at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory, according to the BBC.
“The processes we’d been studying in this region were leading to an irreversible collapse, but at a fairly measured pace. Things could be much more abrupt if we lose the rest of that ice shelf,” Joughin added.
Joughin predicts the whole shelf could give way “within the next few years.”
The Pine Island Glacier, which is roughly five times the size of Wales, is one of two glaciers in western Antarctica that scientists are concerned about.