Ice Shelf Instability

Glasser and Scambos (2008) reexamined the Larsen Ice Shelf breakup for structural weaknesses and observed the following. They noted that the rifting and crevasses parallel to the ice front crosscut the meltwater channels and ponds, hence, post dating them. The number and length of the rifts increased markedly in the year before collapse. Substantial rifts also existed between tributary glaciers feeding the ice shelf as far as 40 km behind the ice front. Enlargement of and development of new rifts in these regions occurred in the year prior to collapse. Downstream of the tributary glacier junction there are no evidence of relict rifts, illustrating that these rifts are a feature of the last 20 years. After ice shelf collapse the ice front receded to the pre-existing rifts, and the pre-existing rifts defined the area of collapse. In this case the structural weaknesses preconditioned the ice to rapid breakup. Rift formation occurred in areas of velocity differences and natural weaknesses Velocity differences are largest between tributaries and near the ice front.

The latest example of a collapsing ice shelf is Wilkins Ice Shelf (WIS), which lost 425 km2 in late February and early March 2008. The dynamic nature of the WIS is examined by Braun, Humbert and Moll (2008), their findings are summarized below. WIS is buttressed by Alexander, Latady, Charcot and Rothschild Island and by numerous small ice rises, indicating subglacial contact. Recent history indicates that WIS experiences no continuous ordinary calving, but single break-up events of various magnitudes. They further show that drainage of melt ponds into crevasses were of no relevance for the break-up at WIS. On WIS the evolution of failure zones is associated with ice rises. Analysis of rifting indicated that in 1990 the central area of WIS did not have any substantial rifts. In 1993/94, rift formation started to expand at the northern ice front. Today, the central part of WIS is intersected by long rifts that formed in and around ice rises. The rifts can cover tens of kilometers. The evolution and coalescing of the rifts are followed by break-up events at the ice front. Hence, the connection of rift systems seems to be the trigger for collapse. The recent break-up has left a narrow 6 km wide; already fractured connection to Charcot Island in a sensitive area that is stabilizing the northern part of the ice shelf. A new rift connection formed between already existing fractures, crosses almost the entire northern shelf, which makes WIS even more fragile and vulnerable. This area of interconnected rifts is 2100 km2. An additional 3000 km2 of the 13 000km2 of WIS, is at risk if this connection to Charcot Island is lost as rifts around the Petrie Ice Rise indicate an area of weakness. The conclusion for WIS is pre-conditioning of the ice shelf by failure zones occurring at ice rises and triggered by break-up events are leading to a sequence cascade of failure.

Below you can see the evident rifts near Charcot Island in this March MODIS image and the narrow connection of the ice shelf to this pinning point. The lack of sea ice on the north facing ice front is also noteworthy.

It appears that ice shelf thinning is the key pre-conditioning factor for collapse. The mechanisms for ice shelf thinning include basal melting, meltwater production and rift development. These are interrelated mechanisms that pre-condition the ice shelves to collapse. This will be a key area of continued investigation to understand this critical process for the Antarctic Ice Sheet. At the moment it seems that the key process to rapid calving events is the rift development. Rift development is observed to begin at points of natural weakness. For both ice shelves prior to collapse an expansion of the area where rifts exists has been observed. In both cases this seems to result from pre-conditioning via thinning due to basal melt and surface melt. Rifts development is accentuated by water filling crevasses. A new study will be looking at the impact of reduced sea ice at the front as well (Scambos and Massom, 2008). It is obvious that the glaciologic community will be watching the Wilkins Ice Shelf next Austral summer.


Rignot, E., Casassa, G., Gogineni, P., Krabill, W., Rivera, A., and Thomas, R. (2004). Accelerated ice discharge from the Antarctic Peninsula following the collapse of Larsen B Ice Shelf. Geophysical Research Letters 31: L18401, doi:10.1029/2004GL020697.

Scambos, T., Hulbe, C., Fahnestock, M. and Bohlander, J. (2000). The link between climate warming and break-up of ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula. Journal of Glaciology 46: 516–530.

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