News Release

Scientists reconstruct past history of largest ice shelf on Antarctic Peninsula

Peer-Reviewed Publication

British Antarctic Survey

For the first time, geological records have been used to reconstruct the history of Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica. The ice shelf is the largest remaining remnant of a much more extensive area of ice on the Antarctic Peninsula that began to break up during the 1990s (Larsen A), and saw a huge collapse in 2002 (Larsen B). This new reconstruction enables scientists to better understand if and when the remaining ice shelf could collapse in the future.

Publishing this month in the journal Geology an international team describes how the largest remaining ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula, has been stable for the past ~10,000 years.

The vast Larsen Ice Shelf, twice the size of Wales, attracted global media attention, after a 5,800-square-kilometre iceberg weighing more than a trillion tonnes calved in 2017. Last month (April) it broke up completely, following a three year journey drifting from the Antarctic Peninsula to the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia.

Over the past 25 years, several of the region's ice shelves have collapsed, including the rapid disintegration of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in 2002. The sequential breakup of ice shelves along the eastern Antarctic Peninsula is linked to warmer atmospheric temperatures which have gradually moved southward over the past 50 years. At the same time, warm ocean currents have also increased, weakening the region's ice shelves from below.

Using hot water drilling technology to penetrate through the 300 m-thick ice shelf, the team collected seabed sediment cores from beneath the Larsen C Ice Shelf in 2011. Data from these were combined with data from sediment cores recovered offshore a decade earlier, enabling the science team to reconstruct the first detailed history of the ice shelf. The authors conclude that despite modest retreat and advances of the ice shelf front there was no significant collapse during the past 10,000 years.

Lead author, marine geologist Dr James Smith from British Antarctic Survey, says:

"There is a huge international scientific effort underway to get a better understanding of what's happening to Antarctica's ice shelves. If we can understand what happened in the past we will have a sense of what might happen in the future. We can perhaps differentiate natural events that affect the ice shelves from environmental change related to human activity. This new study provides the final piece of the puzzle to the history of this last remaining ice shelf on the eastern Peninsula."

The team suggest that persistence of Larsen C, as well as Larsen B, implies that these ice shelves were more resilient to past climate warming because they were thicker, or that the heat from the atmosphere and ocean did not penetrate this far south.

In this context, the collapse of Larsen B in 2002 provided the first clue that the extent of contemporary ice shelf break-ups was starting to push further south than at any time during the past 10,000 years. Larsen C is also showing signs that it might be the next ice shelf in line to collapse.

"We now have a much clearer picture of the pattern and extent of ice shelf break-ups, both past and present. It starts in the north and progresses southward as the atmosphere and ocean warms. Should collapse of Larsen C happen, it would confirm that the magnitudes of ice loss along the eastern Antarctic Peninsula and underlying climate change are unprecedented during the past 10,000 years" says Smith.


Smith, J.A., Hillenbrand, C.-D., Subt, C., Rosenheim, B.E., Frederichs, T., Ehrmann, W., Anderson, T.J., Wacker. L., Makinson, K., Anker, P., Venables, E.J., Nicholls, K.W. (2021). History of Larsen C Ice Shelf reconstructed from sub-ice shelf and offshore sediments. Geology

Issued by the Press Office at British Antarctic Survey:

Athena Dinar, British Antarctic Survey, mobile: +44 (0) 7909 008516;

Livia Oldland, British Antarctic Survey, mobile: +44 (0) 7850 541910;

Dr James Smith describes his research in this You Tube video here:

Video of the Larsen C ice shelf just after it calved the A68 iceberg in 2017 is available from the FTP site here:

To download individual files: do not use an FTPClient, simply open the link with any standard web browser (Firefox, IE, Safari etc), right click on the filename and select 'save target/link/file as' to begin the download.

To download folders: use an FTP client (such as the free FileZilla). Login with the user and as the password.

Mac Users: if using a browser to access on a Mac/MacBook and you are asked to 'log in' simply click on to proceed.

For info on a Mac, Firefox usually allows you to download within the Browser, whereas Safari will try to open in Finder, from where you can drag and drop to your desktop.

British Antarctic Survey (BAS), an institute of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and part of UKRI, delivers and enables world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions. Its skilled science and support staff based in Cambridge, Antarctica and the Arctic, work together to deliver research that uses the Polar Regions to advance our understanding of Earth as a sustainable planet. Through its extensive logistic capability and know how BAS facilitates access for the British and international science community to the UK polar research operation. Numerous national and international collaborations, combined with an excellent infrastructure help sustain a world leading position for the UK in Antarctic affairs.

For more information visit our website or social media; TW @BAS_news, FB @BritishAntarcticSurvey, LI @british-antarctic-survey, IG @britishantarcticsurvey

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.