In an area previously thought to be stable, an Antarctic ice shelf that is larger than New York City has collapsed.
Despite the shelf's small size, the collapse marks the first time an ice shelf in East Antarctica has collapsed, according to the Associated Press.
"In this part of Antarctica, which is attached to the highest, driest, coldest region, East Antarctica, we really did not anticipate seeing ice-shelf collapse," Peter Neff, a glaciologist at the University of Minnesota, said in a TikTok video on Friday.
Last week, as temperatures in the region soared, the shelf broke apart. According to Catherine Walker, an ice scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, it collapsed sometime between March 14 and March 16.
The temperature on the Antarctic plateau spiked by 21 Celsius just a few days before that. The heat had been carried from the tropics to the ice continent by a long column of water vapour known as an atmospheric river. According to The Washington Post, a high-pressure system known as a "heat dome" moved over East Antarctica, trapping heat and moisture there.
"The heatwave was likely "the last straw on the camel's back," Walker told the AP.
"We probably are seeing the result of a lot of long-time increased ocean warming there," she said, adding, "It's just been melting and melting."
Human activity is adding more heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which is driving global temperatures higher. In addition, the poles are warming faster than the rest of the world.
It was reported in February that Antarctica was at its lowest sea ice coverage since records began, even before the heatwave.
Despite shrinkage since the 1970s, this ice shelf's melt accelerated in 2020, so its size was halved on average every month, according to the Associated Press. Previously, the shelf was situated between two glaciers, Conger and Glenzer, and warming ocean waters.
As the concerning collapse demonstrates, even areas thought to be safe from the effects of climate change are not so unaffected.
"The Glenzer Conger ice shelf presumably had been there for thousands of years and it's not ever going to be there again," Neff told the AP.