The Larsen B ice shelf. (Image Credit: Jim Ross / NASA)

The Larsen B ice shelf. (Image Credit: Jim Ross / NASA)

An ice shelf in Antarctica may be completely gone in the next few years, according to a study published by researchers at NASA and the University of California, Irvine.

The ice shelf, known as Larsen B, has existed for at least 10,000 years, but in 2002 major portions of the northern and central parts of the shelf disintegrated, leaving only the tributary glaciers on the southern part of the shelf.

Although many thought the remaining shelf to be stable, a new study, published this week in Earth and Planetary Science Letters found that, on the contrary, the shelf is rapidly breaking up. Since 2002, the shelf has been more prone to fracturing and breaking, according to the researchers. In addition, the ice has been thinning and the shelf’s tributary glaciers are flowing faster.

“What is really surprising about Larsen B is how quickly the changes are taking place,” Ala Khazendar, lead author of the study and member of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “This ice shelf has existed for at least 10,000 years, and soon it will be gone.”

An ice shelf is a thick piece of ice that forms at the junction of an ice sheet or a glacier and the ocean. While glaciers and ice sheets rest on the ground, an ice shelf sits on top of ocean water. 

The Larsen B ice shelf resides on the Antarctic peninsula, which juts out of the northwest of Antarctica between the Amundsen and Weddell Sea. The Antarctic peninsula is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth — temperatures have climbed 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950. A study published in the journal Science last year found that the 2002 collapse of Larsen B was due to warming.

For this recent study, the NASA researchers made their predictions about the future of the Larsen B remnants from data on ice surface elevation and bedrock depths that they measured from NASA’s Operation IceBridge, which collects data on Antarctica’s glaciers, ice shelves and ice sheets. They identified a large rift traveling along the southeastern part of the ice shelf, which they believe will form the next large break.

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