There’s enough water frozen in Greenland and Antarctic glaciers that if they melted, global seas would rise by many feet. What will happen to these glaciers over the coming decades is the biggest unknown in the future of rising seas, partly because glacier fracture physics is not yet fully understood.

Illustration of an iceberg with a rift extending from the above water surface to well below under the water
Rob Soto
In this illustration, seawater flows deep below the surface into an actively opening ice shelf rift in Antarctica. New research shows that such rifts can open very quickly, and that the seawater rushing in helps control the speed of ice shelf breakage.

A critical question is how warmer oceans might cause glaciers to break apart more quickly. University of Washington researchers have demonstrated the fastest-known large-scale breakage along an Antarctic ice shelf. The study, recently published in AGU Advances, shows that a 6.5-mile (10.5 kilometer) crack formed in 2012 on Pine Island Glacier — a retreating ice shelf that holds back the larger West Antarctic ice sheet — in about 5 and a half minutes. That means the rift opened at about 115 feet (35 meters) per second, or about 80 miles per hour.

“This is to our knowledge the fastest rift-opening event that’s ever been observed,” said lead author Stephanie Olinger, who did the work as part of her doctoral research at the UW and Harvard University and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University. “This shows that under certain circumstances, an ice shelf can shatter. It tells us we need to look out for this type of behavior in the future, and it informs how we might go about describing these fractures in large-scale ice sheet models.”

A rift is a crack that passes all the way through the roughly 1,000 feet (300 meters) of floating ice for a typical Antarctic ice shelf. These cracks are the precursor to ice shelf calving, in which large chunks of ice break off a glacier and fall into the sea. Such events happen often at Pine Island Glacier — the iceberg observed in the study has long since separated from the continent.

“Ice shelves exert a really important stabilizing influence on the rest of the Antarctic ice sheet. If an ice shelf breaks up, the glacier ice behind really speeds up,” Olinger said. “This rifting process is essentially how Antarctic ice shelves calve large icebergs.”

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