Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Breakup and conditions for stability of the northern Larsen Ice Shelf, Antarctica


The breakup of ice shelves has been widely regarded as an indicator of climate change1, with observations around the Antarctic Peninsula having shown a pattern of gradual retreat, associated with regional atmospheric warming and increased summer melt and fracturing processes2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. The rapid collapse of the northernmost section of the Larsen Ice Shelf (Larsen A), over a few days in January 1995, indicated that, after retreat beyond a critical limit, ice shelves may disintegrate rapidly. Here we use a finite-element numerical model that treats ice as a continuum without fracture10 to examine the breakup history2 between 1986 and 1997 of the two northern sections of Larsen Ice Shelf (Larsen A and Larsen B), from which we establish stability criteria for ice shelves. Analysis of various ice-shelf configurations reveals characteristic patterns in the strain rates near the ice front which we use to describe the stability of the ice shelf. On Larsen A, only the initial and final ice-front configurations show a stable pattern. Larsen B at present exhibits a stable pattern, but if the ice front were to retreat by a further few kilometres, it too is likely to enter an irreversible retreat phase.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Location diagram and ice-thickness contours.
Figure 2: Strain-rate trajectories.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Mercer, J. H. West Antarctic ice sheet and CO2greenhouse effect; a threat of disaster. Nature 271, 321–325 (1978).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. Vaughan, D. G. & Doake, C. S. M. Recent atmospheric warming and retreat of ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula. Nature 379, 328–331 (1996).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Doake, C. S. M. State of balance of the ice sheet in the Antarctic Peninsula. Ann. Glaciol. 3, 77–82 (1982).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. Skvarca, P. Fast recession of the northern Larsen Ice Shelf monitored by space images. Ann. Glaciol. 17, 317–321 (1993).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. Skvarca, P. Changes and surface features of the Larsen Ice Shelf, Antarctica, derived from Landsat and Kosmos mosaics. Ann. Glaciol. 20, 6–12 (1994).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  6. Rott, H., Skvarca, P. & Nagler, T. Rapid collapse of Northern Larsen Ice Shelf, Antarctica. Science 271, 788–792 (1996).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Rott, H., Rack, W., Nagler, T. & Skvarca, P. Climatically induced retreat and collapse of Northern Larsen Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula. Ann. Glaciol. 27 (in the press).

  8. Doake, C. S. M. & Vaughan, D. G. Rapid disintegration of Wordie Ice Shelf in response to atmospheric warming. Nature 350, 328–330 (1991).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  9. Skvarca, P., Rack, W., Rott, H. & Ibarzábal y Donángelo, T. Evidence of recent climate warming on the eastern Antarctic Peninsula. Ann. Glaciol. 27 (in the press).

  10. Rist, M. A. et al. Experimental fracture and mechanical properties of Antarctic ice: preliminary results. Ann. Glaciol. 23, 284–292 (1996).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  11. MacAyeal, D. R. & Thomas, R. H. Numerical modelling of ice-shelf motion. Ann. Glaciol. 3, 189–194 (1982).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  12. Doake, C. S. M. Strain-rate trajectories and isotropic points on Filchner Ronne Ice Shelf, Antarctica. FRISP Report 10, 16–20 (1996).

  13. MacAyeal, D. R. Atutorial on the use of control methods in ice-sheet modelling. J. Glaciol. 39, 91–98 (1993).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. Bindschadler, R. A., Fahnestock, M. A., Skvarca, P. & Scambos, T. A. Surface-velocity field of the northern Larsen Ice Shelf, Antarctica. Ann. Glaciol. 20, 319–326 (1994).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Thorndike, A. S., Cooley, C. R. & Nye, J. F. The structure and evolution of flow fields and other vector fields. J. Phys. A 11, 1455–1490 (1978).

    Article  ADS  MathSciNet  Google Scholar 

  16. Nye, J. F. Monstars on glaciers. J. Glaciol. 29, 70–77 (1983).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. Meier, M. F., Rasmussen, L. A., Krimmel, R. M., Olsen, R. W. & Frank, D. Photogrammetric determination of surface altitude, terminus position, and ice velocity of Columbia Glacier, Alaska. (Studies of Columbia Glacier, Alaska). Prof. Pap. US Geol. Surv. 1258-F (1985)).

  18. Nye, J. F. Isotropic points on glaciers. J. Glaciol. 32, 363–365 (1986).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  19. Frolich, R. M., Vaughan, D. G. & Doake, C. S. M. Flow of Rutford Ice Stream and comparison with Carlson Inlet, Antarctica. Ann. Glaciol. 12, 51–56 (1989).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  20. BAS, SPRI and WCM Antarctic digital database user's guide and reference manual. (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, Cambridge, (1993)).

Download references


We thank D. Vaughan and colleagues at the British Antarctic Survey, and S. Marshall for comments on the manuscript. ERS radar altimetry data are copyright to ESA 1994 and 1995.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Doake, C., Corr, H., Rott, H. et al. Breakup and conditions for stability of the northern Larsen Ice Shelf, Antarctica. Nature 391, 778–780 (1998).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing