Skeptical Science

Rating the the reason why the Larsen C ice shelf is melting

Sharing is caring!

Ranking the reasons why the Larsen C ice shelf is melting

Posted on 20 April 2022 by Visitor Writer

This can be a re-post from Carbon Brief by Ella Gilbert, John King, and Ian Renfrew

Scientists know the floor of the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica is melting, making it susceptible to break down. For the primary time, we are able to rank crucial causes of melting over the latest previous.

In a brand new two-part paper in Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, we present how the quantity of vitality reaching the ice from the solar is the dominant issue, adopted by heat winds, clouds and climate patterns. These drivers of melting can work together and overlap to strengthen or counteract one another, so it’s a complicated image.

Understanding what’s inflicting melting over Larsen C is important as it’ll assist predict the way forward for the ice shelf, which could have knock-on penalties for sea ranges worldwide. 

In 2002, Larsen C’s neighbouring ice shelf, Larsen B, skilled melting so extreme that it will definitely brought on the shelf to break down utterly. 

Susceptible to break down

Larsen C is a floating platform of ice on the jap facet of the Antarctic Peninsula, masking an space of  47,000 sq. kilometres. It’s the largest remaining ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula, regardless of losing a chunk of ice the dimensions of the English county of Norfolk in 2017. 

Ice cabinets are vital for holding again glaciers that might in any other case move into the ocean and add to sea ranges. Larsen C restrains glaciers that comprise sufficient ice to raise global sea levels by round 22mm.

In our previous work, we’ve recognized Larsen C as susceptible to break down if warming continues unchecked. That is due to an elevated quantity of meltwater on the floor, which trickles into crevasses within the shelf and re-freezes. This could set off a course of referred to as “hydrofracturing“, which caused the collapse of the Larsen A ice shelf in 1995 and Larsen B in 2002 on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Nevertheless, our understanding of what causes ice cabinets to soften is proscribed by the shortage of observations within the area. So we as an alternative flip to numerical fashions, that are a particularly great tool to discover soften processes in additional depth.

Understanding floor melting

In our two-part paper, we used a complicated atmospheric mannequin to look at the processes inflicting floor melting on Larsen C over twenty years (1998-2017). 

The animation beneath exhibits how our mannequin (left picture) is mostly capable of reproduce the patterns of melting which can be noticed by satellites (proper picture). 

Most notably, an east–west gradient is seen with greater soften within the western inlets above the ice shelf associated to mountain winds. That is superimposed on prime of a north–south gradient associated to temperature and the quantity of daylight that reaches the ice (extra on this beneath). This similarity provides us confidence that the mannequin is representing the actual causes of soften on the Larsen C ice shelf.

Causes of melting: sunshine and wind

Two primary situations should be met for floor soften to happen. 

First, there should be sufficient vitality obtainable – radiated from the solar, clouds or ambiance for instance – and second, the floor temperature should be on the melting level of 0C. Nevertheless, these situations will be caused by any variety of climate patterns and processes. 

The determine beneath summarises the commonest mechanisms contributing to floor melting on Larsen C in several seasons. A very powerful issue is the quantity of photo voltaic vitality – or sunshine.

Photo voltaic vitality drives the vast majority of melting – particularly in summer time when the ice shelf receives 24 hours of daylight – as a result of sunny situations present a number of vitality to soften ice and are sometimes accompanied by hotter temperatures. Throughout sunny situations (panel a beneath), the right mixture to trigger melting exists – hotter temperatures plus an abundance of vitality.


Schematic displaying the principle components contributing to melting over the Larsen C ice shelf throughout every season: summer time (DJF), winter (JJA) and spring/autumn (SON/MAM). Supply: Gilbert et al. (2022b).

The second most vital issue is winds. “Foehn winds” are heat, dry winds which can be fashioned when air is compelled over steep mountains, reminiscent of these on the Antarctic Peninsula. When the wind descends on the opposite facet of the mountain it brings in hotter air which might trigger melting to happen, even within the cooler seasons of spring and autumn. We’ve beforehand proven foehn winds to be very important on Larsen C.

The crimson shading within the map beneath exhibits the proportion of the yr when foehn occasions happen. You’ll discover that the sample of foehn incidence resembles the patterns of floor melting, proven within the first map above. It’s because foehn winds usually increase temperatures to the melting level and ship a surplus of vitality to drive floor melting.


Map of common foehn incidence over the Larsen C ice shelf throughout 1998–2017, expressed as the proportion of time when foehn winds are occurring. Credit score: Gilbert et al. (2022b).

In autumn notably, foehn winds can account for a big proportion of total soften. 

The autumn of 2016, for instance, had an unusually massive variety of foehn occasions. Previously, we confirmed that foehn winds brought on soften in the course of the coldest months. In our new paper, we discover that they’re chargeable for over a 3rd of the floor soften that passed off in 2016, and practically 30 occasions the seasonal common.

Foehn are vital elsewhere on the Antarctic Peninsula, too. We present that they had been a key part within the collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf – Larsen C’s former neighbour – in 2002, by contributing to the melting that ultimately brought on the ice shelf to disintegrate.

One other new paper – revealed right now in Communications Earth & Environment – finds that atmospheric rivers (ARs) additionally performed a job in Larsen B’s demise. It finds that these lengthy, slim bands of intense precipitation are chargeable for producing “widespread and intense foehn soften occasions” on the Antarctic Peninsula, and had been a possible set off of Larsen B’s break up.

For Larsen C, the paper says that calving occasions – the place chunks of ice break off from the sting of the shelf – in early 2005 are “extra immediately associated” to ARs. The truth is, Larsen C is “much more delicate to AR exercise than the Larsen A and B”, the paper continues. With additional warming, Larsen C “could cross a median temperature threshold and develop into more and more susceptible to AR behaviour just like the Larsen A and B ice cabinets have already got skilled”, the authors warn.

Causes of melting: Clouds and atmospheric circulation 

The third issue we contemplate is clouds. Clouds are essential in controlling how a lot vitality reaches the floor of Larsen C and, consequently, how a lot melting happens. 

Over Larsen C, we discovered that clouds had a number of vital impacts. First, clouds can provoke or maintain melting by trapping outgoing warmth, particularly in autumn or spring (panel e within the earlier determine). Generally this mixed with foehn situations (panel f), even permitting soften in winter (panel d).

Second, clouds can scale back the quantity of photo voltaic vitality reaching the ice, particularly in summer time.

Crucially, the quantity of liquid water contained within the clouds influences how a lot summertime melting happens. When clouds prolong throughout a lot of the sky however comprise comparatively little liquid water, this often signifies considered one of two issues. 

Both a layer of low-level cloud that’s skinny sufficient to allow some photo voltaic radiation by way of however thick and heat sufficient to entice outgoing vitality and mirror it again down in the direction of the floor (panel b above).

Or a skinny veil of high-level cirrus cloud, primarily composed of ice, with no cloud at decrease ranges (panel c). In these instances, a lot of the daylight penetrates by way of the cirrus layer whereas some outgoing infrared vitality can be trapped. This situation can even accompany foehn winds.

In each instances, melting can nonetheless happen as a result of there may be sufficient photo voltaic and infrared vitality reaching the floor, producing an vitality surplus that drives melting.

What’s attention-grabbing concerning the first case is that this is identical phenomenon that was chargeable for the widespread melting observed over the Greenland ice sheet in 2012, 2019 and 2020, when nearly your complete ice cap melted for a number of days at a time.

Because the melting level is reached extra steadily and liquid clouds develop into extra prevalent in a warming local weather, this means that situations over Larsen C and the Antarctic Peninsula could start to resemble Greenland extra intently.  

The ultimate piece within the puzzle is larger-scale atmospheric circulation. Whereas not strictly drivers themselves, broader scale climate patterns body the large image of soften situations. From there, the extra localised options outlined above color within the element to find out whether or not we really see soften or not.

Sure patterns of atmospheric circulation, such because the power and place of the westerly winds that circle Antarctica – referred to as the Southern Annular Mode, or SAM – and distant connections to the Pacific (El Niño/La Niña) can both improve or suppress melting on Larsen C.

As an illustration, when the SAM is optimistic and the westerly winds are stronger and nearer to the Antarctic Peninsula, that establishes situations for foehn winds to happen extra steadily, driving better melting. Equally, soften is enhanced throughout El Niño situations and when the low strain system that often sits over the Amundsen Sea is deeper and nearer to the peninsula.

The way forward for Larsen C

The causes of melting on Larsen C are complicated. Native, regional and large-scale components reminiscent of photo voltaic radiation, foehn winds, clouds and large-scale climate patterns all contribute, with totally different results in several seasons. 

Many of those drivers can occur concurrently, they’ll act in the identical or reverse instructions, they usually could have totally different results at totally different occasions of yr. 

Because the local weather warms, the situations for melting to happen shall be met extra usually on Larsen C. Altering atmospheric circulation patterns will seemingly produce situations for foehn winds to happen extra steadily and cloud-mediated melting will most likely develop into extra commonplace.

We have no idea whether or not Larsen C will comply with its former neighbour’s destiny, however understanding what’s driving the soften within the current will higher equip us to foretell the longer term.

Gilbert, E. et al. (2022) A 20-year research of soften processes over Larsen C Ice Shelf utilizing a excessive–decision regional atmospheric mannequin: Half 1, Mannequin configuration and validation, Journal of Geophysical Analysis: Atmospheres, doi:10.1029/2021JD034766

Gilbert, E. et al. (2022) A 20-year research of soften processes over Larsen C Ice Shelf utilizing a excessive–decision regional atmospheric mannequin: Half 2, Drivers of floor melting, Journal of Geophysical Analysis: Atmospheres, doi:10.1029/2021JD036012

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

eight + 7 =

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

You may also like

Read More