A calving event followed by total ice sheet collapse is what happened with the Larsen A and B shelves, which sat north of Larsen C, in 1995 and 2002.
"[Larsen C ] is a very visible, very tangible, very predictable result of a warmer and warmer planet," he said. "We hear about sea level rise, but I don't know if people really appreciate the magnitude and the ultimate damage that it will cause economically and politically."
The rift in Larsen C has been there for as long as scientists have been able to observe the shelf, said Daniel McGrath, a glaciologist at Colorado State University. But in the past few years the crack has grown rapidly several times.
Because the Weddell Sea, which lies east of the peninsula, is covered in sea ice, the iceberg might not drift very far. Eventually, ocean and air currents will ferry it along the eastern edge of the peninsula out to the Southern Ocean. But, McGrath said, that could take decades.
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Unlike the collapse of the Larsen A and B ice shelves, which splintered and collapsed over just more than a month after a series of warm summers on the Antarctic Peninsula, the Larsen C shelf hasn't shown the same signs of warming, McGrath said.
The amount of land ice that lies behind Larsen C is relatively small compared to elsewhere on the continent, McGrath said. Lots of ice shelves ring Antarctica and the loss of land ice in other areas is expected to lead to meters of sea level rise.
But, McGrath said, observing changes in Larsen C helps scientists understand ice shelf dynamics, which could help them make meaningful predictions about other shelves, like the Ross ice shelf.
Ross is the largest ice shelf in the Antarctic, covering an area roughly the size of Texas. If it collapsed, huge chunks of West Antarctica would become unstable, White said.
"When that happens, I think we can term that a 'holy shit' moment," he said.
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