- Iceberg A-68, which recently calved from Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf, is the third-largest iceberg on record. Some scientists have described the iceberg’s calving as a “natural” event that can’t yet be tied to human activity. Other scientists, however, have said an immediate lack of information about A-68 isn’t reason to dismiss the realities of climate change.
An iceberg with about six times as much mass as Mount Everest – the third-largest ever recorded – is drifting away from Antarctica.
Blowing winds, ocean currents, and Earth’s rotation are all slowly pushing the Delaware-size block, dubbed A-68 by the US National Ice Center, into the Southern Ocean.
Iceberg A-68 made up 12% of the area of Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf, and there’s a small yet significant chance that the loss could destabilize the rest of the shelf. (A similar collapse occurred with the nearby Larsen B ice shelf in 2002.)
Yet as researchers look into the causes of the rift that created the iceberg, a few have reached something of an impasse about the degree to which human activity contributed to this particular event – or whether it did at all.
The ‘all natural’ and ‘wait and see’ camps
Starting around 2014, Project Midas began tracking a growing rift in the shelf’s ice. By 2016, it was growing at a faster pace, and Luckman said in a blog post in January that a calving was imminent and would “fundamentally change the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula.”
However, Luckman and his colleagues declined to pin any blame for the calving event on global warming – at least not definitively.
“Despite the media and public fascination, the Larsen C rift and iceberg ‘calving’ is not a warning of imminent sea-level rise,” Luckman wrote in a July 12 opinion piece for The Conversation. “This event has also been widely but oversimplistically linked to climate change.”
But Luckman acknowledged that as the planet continues to warm because of greenhouse-gas emissions, “ice shelves are of particular scientific interest because they are susceptible both to atmospheric warming from above and ocean warming from below.”
Luckman said he wasn’t surprised that people assumed human activity was responsible for the emergence of iceberg A-68. After all, he added, “notable changes in the Earth’s glaciers and ice sheets are normally associated with rising environmental temperatures.”
But he thinks that in this instance, “it is probably too early to blame this event directly on human-generated climate change.”
For one, he said, there’s not yet any direct evidence; second, Larsen C has thickened somewhat in recent years; and third, the warming air and ocean water take a long time to penetrate floating ice sheets, which can be more than 1,000 feet thick.
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Other scientists, such as Helen Amanda Fricker, a glaciologist who studies Antarctic ice for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, have offered similar explanations.
“Large calving events such as this are normal processes of a healthy ice sheet, ones that have occurred for decades, centuries, millennia – on cycles that are much longer than a human or satellite lifetime,” Fricker wrote in The Guardian before A-68’s calving. “What looks like an enormous loss is just ordinary housekeeping for this part of Antarctica.”
Martin O’Leary, a colleague of Luckman’s at Swansea and Project Midas, took a similar position shortly after the iceberg broke off.
“Although this is a natural event, and we’re not aware of any link to human-induced climate change, this puts the ice shelf in a very vulnerable position,” he said in a statement. “This is the furthest back that the ice front has been in recorded history. We’re going to be watching very carefully for signs that the rest of the shelf is becoming unstable.”
Missing the big picture?
However, other glaciologists and climate researchers have been quick to push back against such statements.
Kevin Trenberth, a climatologist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, told the CNN columnist John Sutter that deeming an event like this “natural” because of a lack of direct evidence was akin to looking “through a microscope.”
Put another way, focusing too much on one iceberg misses the bigger, inevitable, and more important picture: Earth today has quickly warming oceans, warming air, and a changing climate (among other effects) due primarily to human activity, and this begets melting, weakening ice and subsequent sea-level rise.
“To me, it’s an unequivocal signature of the impact of climate change on Larsen C,” Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told CNN. “This is not a natural cycle. This is the response of the system to a warmer climate from the top and from the bottom. Nothing else can cause this.”
Sutter added, “Rignot said colleagues who say otherwise are burying their heads ‘in the ice.'”
As Andrea Thompson wrote for Climate Central, many ice shelves have been shrinking at increasing rates. Most are being lapped away from below by warmer ocean water, since air temperatures haven’t risen significantly enough to melt their surfaces.
“But on the Antarctic Peninsula – the arm that stretches northward from the continent toward South America – rising air temperatures are impacting the ice,” she wrote. “The region is a global hotspot for warming, with temperatures that have risen by about 5°F in the past 50 years, while the globe as a whole has warmed by about 1.3°F.”
Even Fricker warned in her Guardian column that people shouldn’t be tempted into complacency about the effects of global warming.
“Antarctic ice shelves overall are seeing accelerated thinning, and the ice sheet is losing mass in key sectors of Antarctica,” she wrote. “Continuing losses might soon lead to an irreversible decline.”