Impact of massive breakaway iceberg may not be known for years

Image 1 of 2

A snapshot of the rift in the Larsen C, Nov. 10, 2016. (NASA)

In recent days, an iceberg the size of Delaware broke free from Antarctica. That could have some major environmental implications.

"We have no reason to believe that it's the beginning of a catastrophic collapse but we want to see how this particular large, large event will change the dynamics of the ice shelf," said Jonathan Kingslake, a glaciologist and an assistant earth sciences professor at Columbia. Kingslake explained to Fox 5 the scientific community's interpretation of the trillion-ton iceberg severed from and now floating freely beside Antarctica.

"It's a large example of a naturally occurring process of calving of ice shelves," he said.

He reminded us that while the satellite images appear dramatic and -- for some -- heighten fears of climate change, its freedom should cause no immediate impact on sea levels around the world because this chunk of the Larsen C ice shelf was already floating.

It is the same principle we apply to a glass of ice water. Even as the ice cubes melt, the water level remains the same.

"What really matters is the stuff upstream, which is resting on the ground," Kingslake said. "So these ice shelves manage to hold back that stuff on the ground, like a cork in a bottle."

Snow falls, melts, freezes, and stacks up on the actual landmass of Antarctica. The floating ice shelves surrounding the continent prevent that landlocked ice from falling into the ocean and raising sea levels.

"You often get from climate scientists, 'It's complicated,'" Kingslake said. "Some bits of the cork are more important than other bits of the cork."

Ice in contact with the sea floor and surrounding islands creates more back stress, buttressing as a more active part of the cork than the fringes of the ice shelf.

"This is such a large event there's a debate in the glaciological community… as to whether this loss of this chunk of the cork will actually affect that force," Kingslake said.

A full 10 percent of the Larsen C ice shelf (2,300 square miles) went rogue. But Kingslake stressed that seeing the effects of events like this one often takes years instead of weeks. So we probably shouldn't expect to witness a falling series of ice-sheet dominoes severing throughout the rest of our summer -- Antarctica's winter.