The Pine Island ice shelf lost a fifth of its area between 2017 and 2020, and retreated by 19 kilometers (approximately 12 miles) during that time.

Welcome to EarthWatch, the environmental news and opinion newsletter for people who think you should never turn your back on Mother Earth—written by me, Jerry Bowles, an ancient scribbler who has been around the Sun a few times and doesn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

I took the photo above about 2 am in the morning of December 26, 1965 as I followed an unsteady contingent of my shipmates back to the our ship parked in the icy harbor at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica from a quonset hut optimistically repurposed as the Playboy Club at the research station there. All in all, it was not a bad place to be if you happened to be of draft age in 1965.

Alas, it may not be the safe harbor it was during my visit. A new research paper, published in Science Advances last week, found that the Pine Island Glacier, currently the frozen continent’s greatest contributor to sea level rise, could be closer to collapse than previously thought. The glacier had sped up by 12 percent over the last three years as the ice shelf holding it in place breaks up. This finding could accelerate the timeline for when the entire glacier collapses into the sea, and underscores the urgency of acting to combat the climate crisis.

For decades, the ice shelf has helped to hold back one of the fastest-moving glaciers in Antarctica. Analysis of satellite images reveals a more dramatic process in recent years: From 2017 to 2020, large icebergs at the ice shelf’s edge broke off, and the glacier sped up.

Since floating ice shelves help to hold back the larger grounded mass of the glacier, the recent speedup due to the weakening edge could shorten the timeline for Pine Island Glacier’s eventual collapse into the sea. Researchers at the University of Washington and British Antarctic Survey analyzed satellite images to show that the ice shelf lost a fifth of its area between 2017 and 2020, and retreated by 19 kilometers (approximately 12 miles) during that time. Lead author and University of Washington glaciologist Ian Joughin said in the press release:

“We may not have the luxury of waiting for slow changes on Pine Island; things could actually go much quicker than expected. The processes we’d been studying in this region were leading to an irreversible collapse, but at a fairly measured pace. Things could be much more abrupt if we lose the rest of that ice shelf.”

“The recent changes in speed are not due to melt-driven thinning; instead they’re due to the loss of the outer part of the ice shelf. “It’s not at all inconceivable to say the rest of the ice shelf could be gone in a decade. It’s a long shot. But it’s not that big a long shot.”

The Pine Island Glacier is one of two Antarctic glaciers that most concerns scientists. It and the Thwaites Glacier sit side-by-side in western Antarctica, and keep the rest of the region’s ice in check.