NASA spies the birth throes of a new iceberg

By Phil Plait | November 4, 2011 7:00 am

The Pine Island Glacier is a massive flowing river of ice on the western Antarctic ice shelf. And by massive, I mean massive: it’s 250 km (150+ miles) long, and has an area of 175,000 square kilometers — that’s bigger than the state of Iowa! Every year, a staggering 79 cubic kilometers (19 cubic miles) of ice drains from this glacier in the ocean, flowing via a tongue of ice floating in the water off the main land.

Flying over the glacier on October 14, scientists aboard a NASA DC-8 airplane as part of the IceBridge mission were startled to see a huge crack across the glacier. Flying back over it on October 26, they were able to photograph and measure this huge rift, and found it will almost certainly soon give birth to a huge iceberg. Check out this lovely picture of the ice crack:

[Click to enfloenate – and you really want to; it’s amazingly beautiful.]

Brrrr. The scale of this crack is much larger than you might think: it’s 80 meters wide on average, and about 150 meters wide in the photo above, the size of a football stadium! It runs for 29 km (18 miles), and it’s pretty deep; a topographic map (shown here) indicated it’s 50-60 meters in depth.

Remember, Antarctica is a continent, a land mass, but this part of the glacier is flowing out over the ocean, and is floating. The ice at this point in the glacier is about 500 meters thick — more than a quarter mile! — but cracks like these grow with time. Eventually, it’ll snap, and the seaward part of the ice will float free, a newly-born iceberg that will be something like 800 square kilometers (300+ square miles) in area. Such cracks have been seen before, but never mapped in such detail using airborne observations.

NASA put together a video about the flight over Pine Island:

This is wonderful science, studying how our dynamic planet changes over time. And to get to see such an amazing event as it’s just getting started is very exciting! You can see other pictures from this flight on the NASA Ice Flickr page, and I suggest you do: the images are really cool (har har) and the science they’re doing is important — as the Earth warms (and it is) our ice is disappearing. Missions like IceBridge will help us understand how that is happening and what the effects are.

Credit: Digital Mapping System team and Michael Studinger; NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Scientific Visualization Studio


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Titanic’s revenge
Our ice is disappearing

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA

Comments (32)

  1. What worries me is: when does the Thing show up?

  2. Jim

    Whenever it’s clobberin’ time, of course.

    (Yes, I do know what you were going for)

    That is a very cool set of pics – thanks, Phil.

  3. Daniel J. Andrews

    The beauty of the area certainly isn’t reflected in the acronym for the Pine Island Glacier….unless you think pigs are beautiful creatures.

  4. Mark

    Ok! Great! … now we’re going to send this tech over to Europa to get similar images, right?!

    … right guys?

    … g-guys…?

    *le sigh*

  5. Joseph G

    The enfloenated version doesn’t appear any larger then the one in the OP. Does anyone else see it, or is it just an issue with my browser?

    Also, 19 cubic miles, holy shazbot!

  6. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    Eventually, it’ll snap, and the seaward part of the ice will float free, a newly-born iceberg that will be something like 800 square kilometers (300+ square miles) in area.

    Heh. Antarctica doesn’t mess about with skyscraper-sized icebergs. It goes straight for city-sized icebergs.

  7. Strength of Lenin

    I see you made the funny papers again….http://sci-ence.org/lunar-erratum/

  8. Agersten

    “enfloenated”?

  9. Mapnut

    Slight error in the article, the 175,000 sq. km. area given is the catchment area, not the actual glacier. If the glacier is 250 km long,it would have to be 700 km wide. Usually we state things the other way around. I guess ice is flowing from both sides to the center, where it makes a right or a left turn and officially becomes part of the glacier.

  10. concerned earthling

    Somebody please group all the global warming nay-sayers and dump them in that crack. We will have an increase in IQ of (remainder of) mankind, cleaning of trash and filling that crevice — all achieved in one go. Lol.

  11. Renee Marie Jones

    It would be so cool to do a fly-through of a 3d model!

  12. MW

    While I agree the Earth is warming, my understanding (from news media reports) is that this particular giant iceburg is a regular once-in-a-decade event. This particular glacier regularly grows an ice sheet until it gets big enough to break off, then the process repeats, with approx 10 year period.

    This looks to cover it quite well:

    http://www.terradaily.com/reports/A_Crack_in_the_Pine_Island_Glacier_Ice_Shelf_999.html

    There ARE climate change concerns over Pine Island Glacier, but this calving event is not one of them.

  13. MKS

    Now that’s a nice crack; I wonder what the punch line is?

  14. The earth is just freaking amazing.

  15. But where’s the pines and islands that give this glacier its name? ;-)

    It’s wikipedia page :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pine_Island_Glacier

    mentions a couple of interesting points incl. that it was first visted by humans in 1985 – a surprisingly short time ago, that it may be Antartica’s weak underbelly and there may be a sub-glacial volcano located fairly nearby.

    Semi-relevant here note that those climate contrarians who think Antartica supports their case somehow are well advised to look at this link :

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/antarctica-gaining-ice.htm

    and this one :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wbzK4v7GsM&feature=player_embedded

    part of the excellent Climate crocks series by Peter Sinclair which is well worth watching in full. (Click on my name for the newest one on Muller’s BEST study which again confirmed the reality of Human Induced Rapid Global Overheating which the BA discussed a few weeks ago.)

  16. ‘Bigger than the state of Iowa’, umm that’s nice. I haven’t a clue how large Iowa is, but if you were to say ‘half the area of Germany’. That would be illustrative. I suppose you have to write for a U.S audience, but remember folks from the rest of the planet read your blog too.

  17. Gary Ansorge

    Man that’s a lot of fresh water. Where’s a Saudi Prince with a tug boat when you need him?

    Gary 7

  18. Mapnut the area of a glacier is equal to its catchment. So this is correct. This crack was not evident in MODIS imgery from October 5, MODIS from 11/3 shows it well indeed. This glacier does periodically release large icebergs, but the glacier has thinned, accelerated and retreated significantly in the last 15 years.

  19. Joseph G

    @16 Jeremy Thompson: Thing is, there’s no one landmark (or country) that’s intimately familiar to everyone. Any metaphors are going to fail with part of the audience.
    Personally, I’d go with “bigger then a s**t-ton of f**king massiveness,” but I understand that Phil wants to keep it classy :D

  20. WJM

    Agence France Press moved a story that said the impending MOTHERFLIPPIN ICEBERG OF DOOM would be the size of “Brazil”.

  21. Joseph G

    @MTU: Wiki comes through again. I was wondering where the hell they got pines from. Islands, I can see, but the nearest pine must be thousands of miles away.

    For those who don’t want to bother finding the link from the link, it’s named after a ship, the USS Pine Island which itself was named after an island off the coast of Florida.

  22. brett

    Pretty amazing the scale is mind bogling.Calving events (which this is) are caused by ice accumulation moving forward due to gravity (not caused by melting)and given the summer temperature average for Antarctica is -28C and -70 C in winter going to need a LOT of global warming for it to start melting ( yes I know there has been a modest warming on parts of the Antarctic peninsula, caused by warmer currents shifting southwards)Not every event on the planet is caused by global warming and Antarctica is not melting ( Eric Stieg notwithstanding)

  23. Nigel Depledge

    MW (12) said:

    There ARE climate change concerns over Pine Island Glacier, but this calving event is not one of them.

    True, as far as it goes, but all of Antarctica’s glaciers are flowing faster than they used to, and this is attributable to global warming (or HIRGO as some folks are starting to call it).

  24. Nigel Depledge

    Brett (23) said:

    Pretty amazing the scale is mind bogling.Calving events (which this is) are caused by ice accumulation moving forward due to gravity (not caused by melting)and given the summer temperature average for Antarctica is -28C and -70 C in winter going to need a LOT of global warming for it to start melting ( yes I know there has been a modest warming on parts of the Antarctic peninsula, caused by warmer currents shifting southwards)Not every event on the planet is caused by global warming and Antarctica is not melting ( Eric Stieg notwithstanding)

    But air temp is probably one of the less relevant factors here.

    First off, the sea-ice sheet into which a glacier empties acts as a dam, slowing down the glacier and holding it back. Warmer sea water causes more extensive melting of the sea-ice sheet in summer, which means less mass damming the glacier, which means a faster ice flow rate (heh! Did you see what I did there?).

    Friction between the moving glacier and the rock beneath causes some heat that increases the amount of meltwater lubricating the glacier from beneath, which is another contributor to increased ice flow.

    Combine this with the normal solar-induced melting and slightly higher air temps than normal, and you have a glacier that is speeding up and retreating (in this case, IIUC, the sea-ice sheet is what’s getting smaller).

  25. brett

    Am glad you realise rising air temperatures are not relevant to this( Antarctic temps are stable) – this is not an unusual event http://digitaljournal.com/article/271161. Fluctuations in the temperature and northerly extent of Antarctic circumpolar current are not thought to be unusual (due to the periodicy of the Antarctic cicumpolar wave causing warm phase/cool phase oscillations)http://oceancurrents.rsmas.miami.edu/southern/antarctic-cp.html.There is no icrease in Antarctic temperature-temperature in the Antarctic is stable http://atmoz.org/img/Faraday.png Antarctic sea ice is increasing not getting smaller http://digitaljournal.com/img/1/8/1/6/4/9/i/6/3/5/o/Antarctica_Sea_Ice_Graph.jpg

  26. Nigel Depledge

    Brett (26) said:

    Antarctic sea ice is increasing not getting smaller

    Do you have a reliable source to back up this claim? E.g. the primary science literature?

    ‘Cos from everything I have read, the Antarctic sea ice is also decreasing in volume – some of Antarctica’s major ice shelves are substantially smaller than they were a couple of decades ago.

  27. brett

    here is a link to a paper in GRL that mentions Antarctic sea ice increase http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2010/2010GL044301.shtml here is another that tries to resolve the ‘paradox’ of increasing antarctic sea ice http://www.gatech.edu/newsroom/release.html?nid=60442 I am surprised you are unaware that antarctic sea ice is increasing (at a modest rate) here is another from NASA noting that the increase (from satellite monitoring since 1979) has been around 1% per decade http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/WorldOfChange/sea_ice_south.php

  28. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Brett : Did you see the video and page linked in comment # 15 above? Please check those out and tell me what you think of them.

    There’s also an item in the current (5th November 2011) issue of New Scientist magazine – page 9 – discussing the prospect of Antartica splitting apart with many channels opening up esp. in West Antartica. A study working out where these channels were in past Hothouse eras and where they might form if Antarctica keeps getting hotter was done by David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey and colleagues.

    ***

    PS. Sidenote to this – SF author Kim Stanley Robinson included a plausible description of global devastation on Earth caused by the collapse of the West Antarctican icesheet in his superb ‘Mars’ trilogy esp. in the second book ‘Green Mars’. Robinson has also meticulously researched his books which contain a fair bit of good science and has personally visited Antarctica.

    PPS. Oh & yes, I know that that’s West Antarctica whereas this Pine Island Glacier is located on East Antarctica. Still, interesting to observe, methinks.

  29. Messier Tidy Upper

    @28. brett :

    ..here is another that tries to resolve the ‘paradox’ of increasing antarctic sea ice .. [snip – ed.] .. I am surprised you are unaware that antarctic sea ice is increasing (at a modest rate)

    Thing is that increase as it says in the paper you linked :

    However, the climate models predict an accelerated warming exceeding natural variability with increased loading of greenhouse gases in the 21st century. This will likely result in the sea ice melting at a faster rate from both above and below. Here’s how it works. Increased warming of the atmosphere is expected to heat the upper ocean, which will increase the melting of the sea ice from below. In addition, increased warming will also result in a reduced level of snowfall, but more rain. Because rain doesn’t reflect heat back the way snow does, this will enhance the melting of the Antarctic sea ice from above. “Our finding raises some interesting possibilities about what we might see in the future. We may see, on a time scale of decades, a switch in the Antarctic, where the sea ice extent begins to decrease,” said Judith A. Curry, chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech.

    (Emphasis added.)

    So increased precipitation – snowfall – is causing the slight increase in Antarctican sea ice for now but the climatologists aren’t expecting this trend to continue but rather expect the precipitation factor to eventually be overwhelmed by the increased temperatures.

    Likewise, the excellent NASA Earth observatory source you linked last there observes :

    “Whether the small overall increase in sea ice extent is a sign of meaningful change in the Antarctic is uncertain because ice extents in the Southern Hemisphere vary considerably from year to year and from place to place around the continent. Considered individually, only the Ross Sea sector had a significant positive trend, while sea ice extent has actually decreased in the Bellingshausen and Amundsen Seas. In short, Antarctic sea ice shows a small positive trend, but large scale variations make the trend very noisy. .. [snip – ed.] .. At summer minimums, sea ice concentrations appear even more variable. In the Ross Sea, sea ice virtually disappears in some summers (2000, 2005, 2006, and 2009), but not all. The long-term decline in the sea ice in the Bellingshausen and Amundsen Seas is detectable in the past decade’s summer minimums: concentrations were below the median in all years.

    (Emphasis added.)

    When it comes to your first link there the ‘Geophysical Research Letters’ abstract I’ll note that study concluded in 2005 which is now nearly six years ago and also point you to the material I’ve quoted immediately above here from NASA. In addition, the Ozone Hole will – over time – hopefully be diminishing in size and thus become less of a factor there. Interesting papers though, thanks. :-)

    @26. brett :

    Am glad you realise rising air temperatures are not relevant to this (Antarctic temps are stable) – this is not an unusual event .. [Link snipped] .. Fluctuations in the temperature and northerly extent of Antarctic circumpolar current are not thought to be unusual (due to the periodicy of the Antarctic cicumpolar wave causing warm phase/cool phase oscillations)

    Hmm.. Could be but I’m not sure about that given the overall global context and contradictory material from other sources like those quoted above here.

    .. [Link snipped] There is no increase in Antarctic temperature-temperature in the Antarctic is stable Antarctic sea ice is increasing not getting smaller . [Link snipped.]

    I’m afraid I can’t understand your linked graphs there without the captions and surrounding context. I’m not sure what they’re referring to or what the acronymns stand for. Another of those links – the second one there – wasn’t working for me. I just got a “couldn’t find” error message for it. :-(

  30. D’oh. Typos / expansion corrections for clarity, sorry :

    #29. There’s also an item in the current (5th November 2011) issue of New Scientist magazine – page 9 – discussing the prospect of Antarctica splitting apart with many maritime “seaway” channels opening up through the icesheet, esp. in West Antarctica.

    &

    #30. Thing is that increase is almost certainly temporary – as well as minor & hard to detect above the noise – as it says in the paper you linked..

    (NB. Anyone else here find they keep seeing what they *think* they’ve typed instead of what they *actually*have? Sigh.)

    &

    Robinson has also meticulously researched his books which contain a fair bit of good science and has personally visited Antarctica. Kim Stanley Robinson has, incidentally written some good novels dealing with Human Induced Rapid Global Overheating (HIRGO) and with the future possibilities for Antarctica too. Notably, the eponymous novel (click on my name for link) and his ‘Science in the Capital’trilogy – ‘Forty Signs of Rain’ (2004), ‘Fifty Degrees Below’ (2005), and ‘Sixty Days and Counting’ (2007) – which while not quite as good as his ‘Mars’ books I’d still recommend. :-)

  31. Is that the Moon at 0:58?

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