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This 10,000 Year Old Antarctic Ice Shelf Will Be Gone in Five Years

Say your goodbyes to the Larsen B ice shelf.

At this point, it's no secret that climate change is accelerating the rate of ice melt at Earth's poles, which stands to spark all kinds of social and environmental issues over the coming decades.

Ice shelves—floating platforms of ice connected to continents—are among the natural structures most vulnerable to this process, and as Motherboard's Jacqueline Ronson pointed out on Tuesday, they are disappearing quickly. Antarctica's largest ice shelf, known as Larsen C, covers an area of 50,000 square kilometers, but scientists predict it will have melted away in just 250 years.

The prognosis for the much smaller shelf known as Larsen B is even more dire. On Thursday, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) released a collection of satellite shots of the shelf rapidly fading over the past few years, before finally collapsing into the ocean in 2002. According to JPL geophysicist Ala Khazendar, the remnants of Larsen B will be completely subsumed by the ocean by 2020.

Antarctica's Larsen B Ice Shelf: The Final Act. Credit: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory

"These are warning signs that the remnant is disintegrating," Khazendar said in a JPL statement. "Although it's fascinating scientifically to have a front-row seat to watch the ice shelf becoming unstable and breaking up, it's bad news for our planet. This ice shelf has existed for at least 10,000 years, and soon it will be gone."

Indeed, environmental activists sometimes run into problems persuading the public of the looming threat of climate change, because much of the damage isn't due for decades. So if there's one silver lining to the swift loss of the Larsen ice shelves, it's that it is an obvious litmus test of the larger problems coming down the pipeline.

"It is certainly a warning," Khazendar said. "The conclusion is inescapable."