Following an unprecedented heat wave where temperatures soared 40 degrees Celsius above average, an Antarctica ice shelf has collapsed for the first in human history in the region. 

A massive ice shelf the size of New York City or Rome has completely collapsed in East Antarctica following an unprecedented heat wave in the south pole, according to satellite images. 

The 1,200-square-kilometre Conger ice shelf collapsed on or around March 15, marking the first time in human history that the Antarctic region had an ice shelf collapse. 

The historic event comes after extreme high temperatures shattered previous records in Antarctica, where several parts of the region recorded temperatures 40 degrees Celsius warmer than average. A coastal station even saw temperatures reach far above freezing at 7C. 

Simultaneously, the Arctic, which is currently amid an opposite season, also experienced an extreme heat wave with areas showing signs reaching near or at melting point. 

NASA Earth and Planetary Scientist Catherine Colello Walker suggested on Twitter that the ice shelf has “hit its tipping point following the Antarctic atmospheric river and heatwave”, adding that the Conger collapse is one of the most significant events in Antarctica since the Larsen B ice shelf collapsed in 2002, which covered an area around 3,250 square kilometre in the western region. 

Ice shelves are permanent floating sheets of ice attached to land. They take thousands of years to form and help hold back snow and ice that would otherwise flow into the ocean, which can lead to sea levels to rise. 

The south pole has been less vulnerable to changes in the climate than its Northern counterpart, where the Arctic is warming at least three times faster than the rest of the world. East Antarctica was relatively untouched by global warming in the last century, causing many scientists to be confident in the area’s stability and resistance to rising global temperatures. 

But growing ice melt and loss in the frozen continent within the last 20 years, particularly in the smaller western side and the vulnerable peninsula, have been cause for great concern. According to NASA, Antarctica lost an average of 149 billion tonnes of ice per year from 2002 to 2020. The loss of the Conger ice shelf is the latest sign that changes are happening in the continent. 

“The Glenzer Conger ice shelf presumably had been there for thousands of years and it’s not ever going to be there again,” said Peter Neff, a glaciologist at the University of Minnesota.

According to Neff, East Antarctica contains five times more ice than West Antarctica, where most melting and loss have occurred. The amount of water in the eastern parts are enough to raise sea levels across the globe by more than 160 feet. 

Scientists are expected to conduct more research to determine whether the recent heatwave was directly related to the collapse, and keep their eye on the destabilisation of land ice following the collapse

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Featured image by: Alfred Wegener Institute