Charmion Lara

Written by Charmion Lara

Modified & Updated: 23 May 2024

Jessica Corbett

Reviewed by Jessica Corbett


Ice shelves are magnificent barriers of ice that extend from the coastlines into the polar seas. These massive formations are not just frozen masses; they hold intriguing secrets and surprising facts that continue to captivate scientists and researchers worldwide. From their sheer size to their role in climate change, ice shelves play a vital role in the Earth’s ecosystem.

In this article, we will explore nine surprising facts about ice shelves that will leave you amazed and inspired. Whether you’re a geography enthusiast, a climate change advocate, or simply curious about the wonders of our planet, these facts will shed light on the importance of these icy giants and the impact they have on the environment.

Key Takeaways:

  • Ice shelves are massive platforms of ice found in Antarctica, constantly changing and home to unique ecosystems. They play a crucial role in regulating the flow of ice into the ocean and contribute to global sea-level rise.
  • Ice shelves act as barriers and buffers, slowing down the movement of glaciers and ice sheets. They can collapse and create icebergs, impacting global sea levels and posing hazards to ships in polar regions.
Table of Contents

Ice shelves are massive

Ice shelves are enormous ice platforms that form where glaciers or ice sheets flow down to the ocean surface. They can be thousands of square kilometers in size and can reach staggering thicknesses of several hundred meters.

Ice shelves are found in Antarctica

The majority of ice shelves are located around Antarctica, the southernmost continent on Earth. Antarctica’s extreme cold temperatures and vast ice sheets create the perfect conditions for the formation of these massive ice shelves.

Ice shelves are constantly changing

Due to their contact with the ocean, ice shelves are susceptible to melting and calving. The edges of the ice shelves can melt or break off, causing the overall size and shape of the shelf to change over time.

Ice shelves are home to unique ecosystems

Despite the harsh conditions, ice shelves support a variety of life forms. Algae and small invertebrates can be found on the underside of the shelves, while birds and marine mammals often use the shelves as resting and breeding grounds.

Ice shelves play a role in global sea-level rise

As ice shelves melt or calve, they contribute to the rise in global sea levels. When ice shelves detach from glaciers or ice sheets, this allows the land-based ice to flow more rapidly into the ocean, causing sea levels to rise.

Ice shelves can act as barriers

Ice shelves can act as barriers, preventing glaciers and ice sheets from flowing directly into the ocean. They effectively slow down the rate at which ice moves, regulating the overall discharge of ice into the ocean.

Ice shelves can collapse

Although they are massive and resilient, ice shelves can collapse under certain conditions. Rising air and ocean temperatures, along with increased melting, can weaken the structural integrity of the shelves, leading to catastrophic failures.

Ice shelves can create icebergs

When chunks of ice break off from the edge of an ice shelf, they float away in the ocean as icebergs. These icebergs can be massive in size and present hazards to ships traveling in polar regions.

Ice shelves act as a buffer

Ice shelves act as a buffer for glaciers and ice sheets, slowing their flow and preventing rapid ice discharge. They play a crucial role in maintaining the stability of the Antarctic ice sheet and its overall contribution to global sea levels.

Source: National Geographic


In conclusion, ice shelves are truly fascinating geological formations that play a vital role in our planet’s ecosystem. We have explored nine surprising facts about ice shelves, including their immense size, their impact on global sea levels, and their vulnerability to climate change. These structures not only provide a habitat for unique species, but they also serve as indicators for climate patterns and contribute to the stability of our planet’s ice sheets. It is crucial for us to understand and protect these remarkable formations to ensure the balance of our Earth’s delicate ecosystems for generations to come.


1. What are ice shelves?

Ice shelves are large masses of floating ice that form when glaciers or ice sheets flow into the ocean. They are attached to the land but extend out over the water, creating a natural boundary between the two.

2. How do ice shelves form?

Ice shelves form when ice from glaciers or ice sheets flows into the ocean. The weight of the ice pushing against the shoreline can cause it to float on the water, forming an ice shelf.

3. Why are ice shelves important?

Ice shelves play a crucial role in regulating global sea levels, as they help to hold back the flow of ice from glaciers and ice streams into the ocean. They also provide a habitat for unique ecosystems and act as indicators for climate change.

4. Are ice shelves affected by climate change?

Yes, ice shelves are vulnerable to climate change. Rising temperatures can cause them to melt from below, resulting in the thinning and collapse of the shelves. This can contribute to the acceleration of glacier flow into the ocean and subsequent sea level rise.

5. Can ice shelves regrow once they collapse?

Once an ice shelf collapses, it is unlikely to regrow in the same form. However, it is possible for new ice shelves to form in areas where glacial or ice sheet flow meets the ocean.

6. Do ice shelves have an impact on wildlife?

Yes, ice shelves provide a habitat for various species, including seals, penguins, and seabirds. These ecosystems are adapted to the harsh conditions of the Antarctic and rely on the stability of the ice shelves for survival.

7. How do scientists study ice shelves?

Scientists study ice shelves using various methods, including satellite imagery, aerial surveys, and on-site measurements. They monitor changes in ice thickness, calving events, and the movement of glaciers to understand the dynamics and stability of ice shelves.

8. Are there any ice shelves outside of Antarctica?

Although ice shelves are most commonly found in Antarctica, there are also some small ice shelves in the Arctic, such as the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf in Canada and the Petermann Ice Shelf in Greenland.

9. Are there any dangers associated with visiting ice shelves?

Visiting ice shelves can be extremely dangerous due to their unstable nature. Rapid changes in weather conditions, crevasses, and the risk of ice collapse make it essential for visitors to be adequately prepared and accompanied by experienced guides.

Ice shelves are just one fascinating aspect of Earth's cryosphere, which encompasses all frozen water on our planet. Rising global temperatures due to climate change pose a significant threat to ice shelves and contribute to sea level rise worldwide. Delve deeper into the captivating world of ice and climate by exploring more intriguing facts about the cryosphere, the causes and effects of rising sea levels, and the latest discoveries in climate change research.

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