In March 2022, the world was abuzz with news of the Conger ice shelf’s collapse in East Antarctica. The shelf, measuring 460 square miles—an area larger than New York City—was a region as obscure to the public as it was remote. And for good reason: an ice shelf had never before collapsed in East Antarctica. So, how did this one?
It took two weeks for the ice shelf to blow apart, in an area widely considered by scientists to be relatively stable amid the changes wrought by global climate change. Stable because East Antarctica sits above sea level in generally cooler air temperatures, unlike West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula, where warming Atlantic waters regularly lap up against a literal watch list of vulnerable ice shelves. Most scientists had little reason to suspect the Conger shelf would collapse, given its location. Catherine Walker, a glaciologist at WHOI, wasn’t most scientists.
Three months before Conger’s collapse, Walker had been scanning satellite images of a nearby ice shelf in East Antarctica when she noticed something weird happening to Conger.
“Looking at a big satellite picture of the ice shelf, [the surface] just looked like some bumps, but when you zoomed in, there were cracks probably hundreds of meters long,” says Walker. “By the time we started watching Conger before it broke up, these fractures were probably 16-20 kilometers (10-12 miles) long.”
Now, after a year of data analysis and investigation, Walker suspects the fissures that led to the collapse were caused by a perfect storm of conditions.
Her forensic tools, which include five types of satellite imagery ranging from standard high-resolution cameras to thermal imagery, provided an x-ray view of fractures both above and even below the ice shelf.