Why Another Antarctic Ice Shelf Collapsed

11:36 minutes

four satellite images images, dated february 22, march 12, march 16, and march 21 show the disintegration of an ice shelf. it goes from a solid to developing many cracks and splits apart revealing dark ocean below
A series of photos showing the Conga ice shelf’s collapse. The shelf’s disintegration in March 2022 has reshaped a landscape where coastal glacial ice was once thought to be stable. Credit: NASA

On March 15, the Conger ice shelf, a piece of ice half the size of Rome, collapsed in eastern Antarctica. It’s the first time that side of the continent experienced a major loss of ice in the 40-year history of satellite observations. Previous collapses of shelves have until now occurred in western Antarctica. Meanwhile, researchers are reporting temperatures more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average, while parts of the Arctic are beating averages by 50 degrees. 

Scientific American’s Sophie Bushwick explains why warming at the poles is both more likely than other parts of the globe, and is also exacerbating the likelihood of collapses like this. Plus new insights into strange radio circles in space, the Hubble telescope sees the most distant star yet, and a look at the statistical likelihood of basketball “hot hands.” And an April Fool’s Day quiz on some new inventions that may or may not be real.

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Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll talk about lithium deposits in the state of Oregon and catch up with Dr. Anthony Fauci about new HIV vaccine tests. But first, with all the news last weekend, you may have missed this milestone.

An ice shelf in East Antarctica called the Conger has collapsed within days of new record-setting warm temperatures– I mean 70 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. Here with more about that and other science stories of the week is Sophie Bushwick, technology editor for Scientific American. Welcome back, Sophie.


IRA FLATOW: How big is this ice shelf?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So this ice shelf is about the size of a large city, which means it’s relatively small as far as ice shelves go. There are other ones off of Antarctica that are more like the size of a state in the US.

But what’s interesting about this is that this is an ice shelf on the east area of Antarctica and not the west. So previously, ice shelves, it’s a part of the natural cycle for an ice shelf to have pieces break off and to form icebergs, which has happened to this ice shelf before. But the full collapse of an ice shelf is more of an issue. And that’s what’s happened here in East Antarctica for the first time in a while.

IRA FLATOW: Why is this bad when these collapses happen?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: An ice shelf is sort of like a barrier that holds in the land ice in Antarctica. So the ice that’s above ground in Antarctica doesn’t flow directly into the ocean because the ice shelf is there, blocking it. And so when the ice shelf breaks off, that makes it more likely that land ice will also flow into the ocean. And this can contribute to sea level rise.

IRA FLATOW: And as you said, this shelf was in a part of Antarctica where we’ve never observed a collapse before, right– East Antarctica? Do we know why it happened now?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s very difficult to say definitively this is because of global warming. But Antarctica is getting a lot hotter than it used to be. Like you mentioned, it’s been having, right now, some record-breaking temperatures for this time of year. And it seems that, although this type of warming had already started affecting ice shelves in West Antarctica, it’s also now affecting East Antarctica, which is potentially a big issue if we’re looking forward to future ice shelf collapses.

IRA FLATOW: And I imagine scientists are worried that more collapses may start to happen in this same region.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely. The more ice shelves collapse, the more ice that’s currently held out of the ocean, above ground, is going to be flowing into the ocean. And the problem is that this is just going to keep contributing to higher sea levels.

IRA FLATOW: OK, so our climate crisis is depressing. Let’s move off Earth for a minute.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: [LAUGHS] Let’s go into space.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s go into space. And you have an update on a strange phenomenon called ORC. What is an ORC?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: An ORC is an Odd Radio Circle. And it’s essentially a big ring of radio waves. And radio telescopes have spotted these, but the kind of telescopes that look for X-rays and visible light have not been able to see them.

So it’s this mystery. Why is there this big ring of radio waves that doesn’t seem to have a signature in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, and what causes them? And so previously, radio telescopes have only found five of these objects. And now the MeerKAT Telescope in South Africa has imaged one of these ORCs in much more detail.

And so they’ve learned things like, for instance, this big circle seems to be about a million light years across. That’s 10 times bigger than our Milky Way galaxy. And they’ve also found that– so that’s the size of the big outer circle– but the ORCs seem to also have smaller circles within them, sort of like nested soap bubbles.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Do we know what could have caused these ORCs? They seem really weird.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s hard to say. A lot of them have galaxies at their center. So some researchers think there could be something had happened inside that galaxy, and then the waves of it had spread out to form the ORC.

It could be something like a big collision, like maybe two supermassive black holes collided, and then the shock waves from that spread out and created it. There’s other theories, as well. But one of the reasons that they wanted to take this image and to look more closely at an ORC is so they can figure this out.

IRA FLATOW: Cool. You have another story about the Hubble telescope seeing a very far-off star. How far off are we talking about?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So when you’re looking off into space with a telescope, you’re also looking back in time. And so this star is so far off that they think it existed within the first billion years after the Big Bang. So that’s when the universe was about 7% of its current age. It’s really far back.

And before then, the furthest star back in time that Hubble had seen was only from the first 4 billion years after the Big Bang. So this one is much further back and much more distant.

IRA FLATOW: So we’re looking back in time.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. Because it takes light– even though light is traveling at the speed of light– if it’s far enough away, it will still take a long time to reach us. And that’s what’s happened in the case of these very distant stars.

IRA FLATOW: So we’re getting to see what the early universe might have looked like, or parts of it.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. So previously, Hubble has seen objects further back, but they haven’t been individual stars. So being able to see this star and a star from so early in the universe, researchers are really excited to say, OK, what is this star made of? What is it like? What were stars like so early in the universe, so close to the Big Bang, as opposed to what they’re like now?

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right, let’s move on to March Madness, for all you basketball fans. You brought us a story about basketball statistics. Tell us about that.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. So researchers decided to look into the phenomenon of hot hands. So when a player has hot hands, you say they’re on a streak of making a lot of baskets in a row. But the question is, is this just an issue of interpretation, or is there actually a statistically significant streak going on?

So for an example, I can take a penny and flip the coin a bunch of times. And it’s possible that I’ll get a bunch of tails in a row. But once I flip it enough times, you’ll see that, in total, I still average out to getting tails about half the time and heads about half the time. So the streak that was in the middle was within the bounds of random chance.

So that’s the question these researchers wanted to answer. Is this type of streak an issue of random chance that we humans are seeing a pattern in, or is it really happening? And they found that this is a real phenomenon, although it is quite rare.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. I mean, we’re talking basketball here, but sports people, people who play the sports, they believe in streaks, right? And you hear people talking about give the ball to this guy. He’s got a hot hand. Or I’m in a batting streak, that player is really hot. I guess it’s true.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It is. It is. So now the players can point to science and say, look, there is mathematics behind this phenomenon.

IRA FLATOW: Give me the ball. Yeah. [CHUCKLES]


IRA FLATOW: I guess that that was a slam dunk for the researchers. [INAUDIBLE] Sorry. Sorry, Sophie.


IRA FLATOW: Finally, I heard there’s a rumor, there’s a rumor going around, that today might be what, April 1, April Fools’ Day, and I’m about to get pranked? Is that–

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Happy April Fools’ Day, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Tell me about this rumor.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So we’ve prepared three stories for you about different products that are made that have been inspired by the animal kingdom. The problem is two of these products don’t exist. Only one of them is real. And you’re going to have to guess which one it is.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, boy. OK, let’s have product number one.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: All right. So the inspiration for this one is the catfish. So catfish have an incredible sense of taste. They’ve got 175,000 taste buds. In comparison, humans have 8,000 to 10,000.

So catfish can detect a lot of things. And now, their densely packed taste buds have inspired an electronic tongue that can act as a sensor and pick up environmental contaminants.

IRA FLATOW: Electronic tongue– a catfish-inspired electronic tongue. Is that real? OK, number two.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: OK, number two. We’re going to stay underwater and look at the squid. So squids’ skin, famously, can change color so the squid can camouflage itself. And it does this by shifting the structure of the skin.

And now, researchers have used this shifting structure as their inspiration for an insulating material, which can shift its structure to keep hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold. So it changes how it dissipates heat. So this one is a squid skin-inspired, like a koozie.

IRA FLATOW: [CHUCKLES] I can see that. I could see a squid liking one of those. Did a squid inspire insulating material for my beer or my coffee? OK. OK, I’m thinking about it. Number three.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: OK. And so then, our last one is a lot cuddlier. We’re going to look at the koala, which carries its young inside a pouch. So this has been the inspiration for researchers who are making search and rescue robots.

And they wanted these robots to be able to recharge. So they’ve got a mobile charging system where the robots actually, they don’t crawl into a pouch, but they do go into a box to recharge. The idea is that this platform can go with the search and rescue robots. They can go off and explore and then return to it.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. A koala-inspired mobile charging dock.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: And I have to guess which one of these is the real story.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Just one of these is real.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Wait, wait, don’t tell me. I’ll come up with the answer, I think. Hmm, catfish-inspired electronic tongue. Could be. A squid skin-inspired koozie? That’s possible. A koala-inspired charging dock for robots.

Because I love squid and all of our cephalopods for cephalopod week, I’m going to go with squid skin-inspired koozie. That’s what I–

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You did it. That is correct.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, come on. Did I really?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You really did. This is actually very cool. So basically, in squid skin, there are these pigmented cells called chromatophores that kind of cluster together in islands that can be bigger or smaller.

And the idea of this insulating material is they’ve got, similarly, they’ve got metal that can form larger or smaller structures depending on whether this material is compressed or stretched. And so that gives the researchers greater control over how much heat is dissipating.

IRA FLATOW: Well, they cephs come through again for us. Thank you, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You’re welcome.

IRA FLATOW: Have a good April Fools’ Day.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You, too. Don’t get fooled.

IRA FLATOW: Sophie Bushwick, technology editor for Scientific American.

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