In finer detail, the Larsen Ice Shelf is a series of three shelves that occupy (or occupied) distinct embayments along the coast. From north to south, the three segments are called Larsen A (the smallest), Larsen B, and Larsen C (the largest) by researchers who work in the area. The Larsen A ice shelf disintegrated in January 1995. The Larsen B ice shelf disintegrated in February 2002. The Larsen C ice shelf appears to be stable for the time being, though scientists predict that if localized warming (possibly caused by anthropogenic global warming) continues at the rate it is now, the shelf could disintegrate at some point within the next few years.
The Larsen disintegration events were unusual. Typically, ice shelves lose mass by iceberg calving and by melting at their upper and lower surfaces. The disintegration events are linked to the ongoing climate warming in the Antarctic Peninsula, about 0.5 °C per decade since the late 1940s, which is a consequence of localized warming of the Antarctic peninsula possibly because of global warming.
During 2002-01-31–2002-03-07 the Larsen B sector collapsed and broke up, 3,250 km² of ice 220 m thick disintegrated, meaning an ice shelf covering an area comparable in size to the state of Rhode Island disappeared in a single season. Larsen B was stable for up to 12,000 years, essentially the entire Holocene period since the last ice age, according to Queen's University researchers. By contrast, Larsen A "was absent for a significant part of that period and reformed beginning about 4,000 years ago," according to the study.
Despite its great age, the Larsen B was clearly in trouble at the time of the collapse. With warm currents eating away the underside of the shelf, it had become a "hotspot of global warming." What especially surprised glaciologists was the speed of the breakup, which was a mere three weeks (or less). A factor they had not anticipated was the powerful effects of liquid water; ponds of meltwater formed on the surface during the near 24 hours of daylight in the summertime, then the water flowed down into cracks and, acting like a multitude of wedges, levered the shelf apart, almost in one fell swoop. Global increase in air temperature was not the only factor contributing to the break according to Ted Scambos, of the University of Colorado's national snow and ice data centre.
Although the remaining Larsen C region, which is the furthest south, appears to be relatively stable for now, it is anticipated that it too may break up sometime in the coming decade. If disintegration should occur with this last major sector, which is larger in size than the states of New Hampshire and Vermont combined -- then the enormous Larsen Ice Shelf viewed in 1893 by Carl Anton Larsen and his crew aboard the Jason will largely be gone in just over a century after first discovery, which is a mere flash in geologic time.
The collapse of Larsen B has revealed a thriving ecosystem 800 m (half a mile) below the sea. "Despite near freezing and sunless conditions, a community of clams and a thin layer of bacterial mats are flourishing in undersea sediments. [...] The discovery was accidental. U.S. Antarctic Program scientists were in the northwestern Weddell Sea investigating the sediment record in a deep glacial trough twice the size of Texas."
Studies show that in the middle of the present interglacial the former Larsen A region, which was the furthest north and outside the Antarctic Circle, had previously broken up and reformed only about 4,000 years ago, although the former Larsen B had been stable for at least 10,000 years. The maximal ice age on the current shelf dates from only two hundred years ago. The precipitation on the Antarctic Peninsula is on average increasing, leading to ice shelves flowing more quickly into the sea and glaciers retreating at a faster pace. Recent data collected by an international team of investigators through satellite-based radar measurements suggests that the overall ice-sheet mass balance in Antarctica is increasingly negative.
The Larsen B Ice Shelf is the subject of a song by the band British Sea Power. "Oh Larsen B" appears on their 2005 album Open Season, and contains the lyric "You're fractured and cold but your heart is unbroken, my favourite foremost coastal Antarctic shelf ... oh Larsen B, oh won't you fall on me ... desalinate the barren sea". This has often been mis-quoted as "desalinate the Barents Sea" which has caused confusion as the Barents Sea is in the Arctic.
Larsen B Ice Shelf appeared also in the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow where a huge chunk of ice fell off as Hall proclaimed 'the last chunk of ice that fell off was about the size of Rhode Island'. This opening sequence paves the way for the events to follow in the rest of the film.
The disintegration of the shelf is referenced in Al Gore's environmental documentary film An Inconvenient Truth as evidence in support of global warming. It is also part of the background story of the book O Sétimo Selo (The Seventh Seal) by Portuguese writer and journalist José Rodrigues dos Santos.