The Antarctic Ice Shelf Is Breaking Up - and USA Today Tells Us to 'Chill Out'


The headline over USA Today‘s story (4/4/17) about an Antarctic ice shelf threatening to break off into an iceberg the size of Delaware: “Chill Out: Antarctic Iceberg Still Holding On.”

“Chill out,” get it? Because it’s Antarctica.

But “chill out” also means “don’t worry,” of course—and you can see how the headline writer picked up on notes of reassurance in the article. (The online version originally shared the same “chill out” headline—before being swapped for the less don’t-worry-be-happy “The Massive Crack in the Antarctic Ice Shelf Is Hanging On by a 12-Mile ‘Thread.'”)

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“Since they’re floating, when the berg finally breaks off, it won’t add to sea-level rise,” reporter Doyle Rice observes—before going on to point out that “ice shelves also serve to hold back the ice behind them: When ice shelves collapse, the ice that had been trapped behind it plops into the ocean, where it then adds to sea-level rise.” Left out is the extent of the sea level rise threatened by the collapse of this ice shelf: about ten centimeters, or around four inches (Washington Post, 5/13/15)–enough to move the high-tide line as much as 30 feet inland.

Then the piece includes a common tic of science writers—the “who knows” passage regarding the impact of climate change:

There is not enough information to know whether the expected calving event on Larsen C is an effect of climate change or not, although there is good scientific evidence that climate change has caused thinning of the ice shelf, according to Project Midas. In the past 50 years, the Antarctic Peninsula has experienced extraordinary warming of more than 4 degrees, the European Space Agency said.

It’s possible that on a hypothetical planet Earth where fossil fuels were never burned and therefore did not cause the Antarctic Peninsula to warm more than 4 degrees, the Larsen Ice Shelf, which was stable for more than 10,000 years, might still begin to fall apart at the end of the 20th century. It’s possible, because this hypothetical greenhouse gas–free Earth is an imaginary planet, and it’s very difficult to say anything with certainty about it.

What we can say for sure is that in the real world, where humans have rapidly warmed the planet, the ice shelf has thinned and begun to break up, after thousands of years of stasis, just as that warming was occurring. This is not reason to take comfort in what-if speculation, but to face up to the predictable—and disastrous—consequences of human alteration of our atmosphere.

The article concludes on a wistful note:

Once the iceberg shears off, the 2,000-square-mile object should float along the coast of Antarctica, then head out into the Southern Ocean and eventually break apart into smaller chunks that would melt into the ocean.

A relaxing image, evoking the pleasure of staring into your drink as the ice cubes melt…and chilling out.

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