For decades, the ice shelf helping to hold back one of the fastest-moving glaciers in Antarctica has gradually thinned. Analysis of satellite images reveals a more dramatic process in recent years: From 2017 to 2020, large icebergs at the ice shelf’s edge broke off, and the glacier sped up.

Since floating ice shelves help to hold back the larger grounded mass of the glacier, the recent speedup due to the weakening edge could shorten the timeline for Pine Island Glacier’s eventual collapse into the sea. The study from researchers at the University of Washington and British Antarctic Survey was published June 11 in the open-access journal Science Advances.

“We may not have the luxury of waiting for slow changes on Pine Island; things could actually go much quicker than expected,” said lead author Ian Joughin, affiliate faculty in Earth and Space Sciences and a glaciologist at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory. “The processes we’d been studying in this region were leading to an irreversible collapse, but at a fairly measured pace. Things could be much more abrupt if we lose the rest of that ice shelf.”

Pine Island Glacier contains approximately 180 trillion tons of ice — equivalent to 0.5 meters, or 1.6 feet, of global sea level rise. It is already responsible for much of Antarctica’s contribution to sea-level rise, causing about one-sixth of a millimeter of sea level rise each year, or about two-thirds of an inch per century, a rate that’s expected to increase. If it and neighboring Thwaites Glacier speed up and flow completely into the ocean, releasing their hold on the larger West Antarctic Ice Sheet, global seas could rise by several feet over the next few centuries.

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