Antarctic Ice Shelf the Size of Rome Collapses After Record Warmth Recorded

An ice shelf in East Antarctica the size of Rome has collapsed after record high temperatures were reported in the area.

Scientists said Friday that the Conger ice shelf, which is roughly 463 square miles, collapsed around Match 15 after the area had temperatures 70 degrees higher than normal, reaching a record 10 degrees Fahrenheit, according to The Guardian.

The U.S. National Ice Center (USNIC) confirmed on March 17 that an iceberg named C-38 broke off from the shelf. "C-38 comprised virtually all that remained of the Conger ice shelf," the USNIC said in a statement. The ice shelf's collapse, captured on satellite images, is believed to be a historical first in the region, according to the Associated Press.

Icebergs breaking away from ice shelves is a natural occurrence but is happening more frequently, likely because of global warming. In 2020, an iceberg almost as big as Las Vegas broke away from Antarctica's Pine Island Glacier. In 2019, an iceberg known as D28, which covers 632 square miles, broke away from the Amery Ice Shelf.

Ice Shelf Breaks Off
An ice shelf in East Antarctica the size of Rome collapsed earlier this month. Above, a chunk of ice falls from the Perito Moreno Glacier at Los Glaciares National Park in the Argentine province of Santa Cruz on March 10, 2018. Walter Diaz / AFP/Getty Images

"Iceberg calving events are a natural part of the 'checks and balances' of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, it has to shed the mass it gains through snowfall," Helen Amanda Fricker, a professor of glaciology at the Scripps Polar Center, wrote on Twitter. "But since there was also an extreme warming event around this time, obviously we do need to examine if there is a link."

An iceberg calving event is when a block of ice separates from a glacier and drifts out into the ocean. Sometimes calving can take decades or it can happen more frequently, as with C-38, which has since calved into two icebergs named C-38A and C-38B, the USNIC said Monday.

There have been three iceberg calving events in East Antarctica this month. The USNIC said the iceberg C-37 from the Glenzer Ice Shelf, adjacent to Conger, calved around March 7. A smaller portion of the Totten Glacier further east has broken off, and iceberg C-38 calved around March 17.

Catherine Colello Walker, an earth and planetary scientist at NASA and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said the Conger ice shelf had been slowly melting since the mid-2000s. That picked up in 2020, and by the beginning of March the ice shelf had lost more than half of its surface area, compared with measurements taken in January, she wrote on Twitter.

"This collapse definitely isn't the end of the world. But it shows us what's possible. Yet another warning: stop messing around with the climate," Walker said.

Meanwhile, scientists are particularly concerned about the future of the Thwaites glacier, nicknamed the "doomsday glacier," which is on the western side of the content. The glacier, about the size of Florida, has been adding roughly 50 billion tons of ice into the sea every year, according to University of Colorado research scientist Ted Scambos.

Update 03/25/22, 4:05 p.m. ET: This story was updated with additional information and background.