From Climate Science to Ecology: NSF-funded LARISSA Takes an In-depth Look at the Collapse of a Massive Antarctic Ice Shelf

Map of the Antarctic Peninsula / LARISSA

Courtesy of Adam Jenkins


In a sweeping and multi-disciplinary U.S. IPY deployment, researchers with the  LARsen Ice Shelf System, Antarctica (LARISSA), project will sail in early 2010 to study as many facets of an ice-shelf ecosystem as possible.

They will use the "natural laboratory" of Antarctica to study the collapse of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in 2002. The collapse provided an unprecedented opportunity for modern science to study such a phenomenon.

A total of roughly 3,200 square kilometers (1,200 square miles) of shelf area disintegrated in a 35-day period beginning on January 31, 2002. Over the past five years, the shelf has lost a total of 5,700 square kilometers (2,200 square miles) and is now about 40 percent the size of its previous minimum stable extent.

Some of the U.S. Antarctic Program's leading researchers will study  the conditions that led to disintegration of the Larsen B. They will look not only at the immediate causes, but will also examine thousands of years of the region's climate history to determine if the event was part of a longer natural cycle or an aberration caused by the documented and rapid warming of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Other LARISSA scientists will delve into consequences of the collapse--such as the effect on a formerly hidden ecosystem that existed on the ocean floor in the shadow of the ice shelf before it disappeared--and how the absence of the shelf is changing the local biological and marine conditions.

Read the series of stories about LARISSA from the Antarctic Sun, a newspaper published by the U.S. Antarctic program,  here.

Read dispatches from the 2009 LARISSA Spring research cruise here.