A view of the Larson B Ice Shelf (Antarctica) breaking apart in 2002, compiled using MODIS images
Courtesy of the National Snow and Ice Data Center

Ice Shelves

Ice shelves are found at the edges of glaciers and ice sheet. An ice sheet extends from land out over the ocean. Ice shelves are a part of the Earth's cryosphere. They can be found in both the north polar region and the south polar region. The largest ice shelf is the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. It is roughly the size of France!

The ice is attached to a glacier or ice sheet at the edge of the land. It is floating in the ocean water at its outer reaches. The ice in an ice shelves flows over time.; As the ice flows and extends further offshore, large pieces of ice break off of the end of the ice shelf into the ocean. The large chunks of ice that are broken into the ocean are called icebergs.

Ice shelves act somewhat like bookends, confining a glacier or ice cap to the land. Global warming has been causing those bookends to melt. There is concern that if some of the world's larger ice shelves were to break off into the ocean at the point where they connect to the land (called the grounding line), there would be nothing left to hold the glaciers and ice sheets on the land. The formation of icebergs from ice shelves does not cause the sea level to change because both the ice shelf and the iceberg are floating in the water. However, after an ice shelf breaks apart, the glacier that it supported moves faster towards the ocean. Pieces of the glacier or ice sheet break off into the ocean causing sea level to rise.

Last modified January 29, 2007 by Lisa Gardiner.

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