But some of these ice shelves have disintegrated over the past decades. Larsen A and Larsen B disappeared from the Antarctic Peninsula in 1995 and 2002 respectively. So how many more can disappear before ice sheets tumble freely into the sea?
A study led by Johannes Fürst from the Laboratory of Glaciology and Environmental Geophysics in Paris mapped out ice shelves holding the most ice back.
In doing so, they identified areas which, should they crumble, will have disastrous consequences – including raising sea levels.
Not all ice shelves are created equal. Some simply float on the ocean, and don’t hold back any ice.
Others, though, are the only barrier keeping ice behind slipping away.
So for each Antarctic ice shelf, the researchers calculated and mapped the area which didn’t hold back the ice sheet at all, or reined it in only a little. They called these areas “passive ice shelf”.
Overall, only around 13% of the ice shelf area was classed as passive. The Larsen C ice shelf, in the Weddell Sea is almost entirely passive ice shelf, the researchers found.
But the ice shelves on the Amundsen and Bellingshausen seas contained the least amount of passive ice shelf, with 7% and 5% respectively.
And not only are those ice shelves already thinning, the ice sitting behind them is on bedrock sloping towards the coast.
The authors say monitoring these shelves for any fractures is urgently needed.
The work was published in Nature Climate Change.
Ice shelves are disappearing
Belinda Smith is a science and technology journalist in Melbourne, Australia.
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