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Record breakers

Find out how Antarctica’s seven largest ice shelf collapses size up in this climate interactive

Image composite by Daniel Hentz (© Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Estimated reading time: 1 minute

Image composite by Daniel Hentz (© Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)


Ice shelf collapses, though natural over tens of thousands of years, were once rare within a human lifetime. And yet, thanks to the human-caused Earth fever that is climate change, there have been seven massive ice shelf collapses in just the last 40 years. Warming waters melt ice from below, where its base meets the sea, a point of stability known as the grounding line. Intact, ice shelves act as natural dams that keep the glaciers in Antarctica’s frozen interior from pouring into the sea and worsening sea-level rise. You can think of them as corks on a bottle of champagne. The bigger the “cork,” the greater the volume of ice that will flow from Antarctica into the ocean and the greater the impact on sea level. Here, we show you how big these “corks” are, comparing the size of partially and fully collapsed ice shelves to that of major cities and regions. Some, like the notorious doomsday Thwaites glacier, have yet to topple. We invite you to note their size. That these ice shelves, while distant, are too big to be ignored.

Click on the numbers around the map below to see how big these historic ice shelf collapses were (and could be).

Note: An eighth massive collapse occurred with Larsen Inlet, which comprised a portion of Larsen B and therefore was not necessary to show in this illustration.




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