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Recovery of Confined Ice Shelves Like Petermann’s is Unlikely Post-Breakup

Ice shelves are nothing but floating extensions of glaciers. According to the result of a new study performed, if Greenland’s second-largest ice shelf splits, it might not be possible to recover it unless Earth’s future climate cools in a significant manner.

Recovery of Confined Ice Shelves Like Petermann’s is Unlikely Post-Breakup.
Flytande istunga. Image Credit: Martin Jakobsson.

The study has been reported in the Nature Communication journal.

At Stockholm University and the University of California Irvine, a research group has examined if the Petermann Ice Shelf in northern Greenland could recover from a future breakup as a result of climate change. An advanced computer model was used by the researchers to simulate the ability of the ice shelf to recover.

Even if Earth’s climate stopped warming, it would be difficult to rebuild this ice shelf once it has fallen apart. If Petermann’s ice shelf is lost, we would have to go ‘back in time’ towards a cooler climate reminiscent of the period before the industrial revolution to regrow Petermann.

Henning Åkesson, Study Lead Author, Stockholm University

Ice shelves have the ability to decrease mass loss from the polar ice sheets. Such gatekeepers thereby help restrict sea-level increase that is caused due to climate warming.

The rationale to avoid breakup of ice shelves in the first place should be clearer than ever.

Henning Åkesson, Study Lead Author, Stockholm University

Glaciers are Rapidly Melting

Petermann is one of Greenland’s last few ice shelves and is being observed by Argus-eyed scientists throughout the world after Manhattan-sized icebergs disrupted the ice shelf in 2010 and 2012, thereby causing Petermann to lose nearly 40% of its floating ice shelf.

Researchers are worried that additional breakup or even failure of the ice shelf would expedite ice flow from the interior ice sheet. In 2018, a new crack in the middle of the ice shelf was found, which revived concerns regarding Petermann’s state of health.

Ice-Sheet Experts are Concerned

While this study concentrated on northwestern Greenland’s biggest glacier, one more grave concern is that the bigger ice shelves discovered in Antarctica could be hard to build back as well, should they break up too.

This is just the first step, but chances are that our findings are not unique for Petermann Glacier and Greenland. If they are not, near-future warming of the polar oceans may push the ice shelves protecting Earth’s ice sheets into a new retreated high-discharge state which may be exceedingly difficult to recover from.

Henning Åkesson, Study Lead Author, Stockholm University

The ice-sheet experts emphasize that there is an urgency to specify precisely how ice shelves tend to break up and how much more warming they could resist currently before they collapse.

The study was financially supported by The Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet).

Journal Reference:

Åkesson, H., et al. (2022) Petermann ice shelf may not recover after a future breakup. Nature Communications.

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