Huge iceberg breaks off from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet

A iceberg thought to be eight times the size of New York’s Manhattan Island has broken off a glacier in the Antarctic.

The huge block of ice measures approximately 720 square kilometres, and broke away from the Pine Island glacier (PIG), located at the most western edge of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. A rapidly-expanding fissure spreading across the surface of the glacier was first noted in 2011 by a NASA plane flying over the region, and since then, the PIG has been under close scrutiny as scientists waited for the iceberg to break off completely.

Despite the Antarctic being shrouded in permanent darkness during its winter months, scientists have been able to track the progress of the massive fissure and confirm the iceberg’s separation from the glacier, using the German TerraSAR-X satellite. This technology has the ability to detect the movements of the PIG’s ice stream, even in pitch darkness and when the Earth is covered by cloud. Using the TerraSAR-X satellite, scientists have been logging details of the iceberg’s split, in order to determine exactly how and why the glacier was driven forward through the Antarctic, and why the fissure was caused. With such information, they hope to come to a better understanding of how the Antarctic is changing, and how it will look in the future.

Professor Angelika Humbert, a glaciologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute, said of the iceberg: “We were very keen to see how the crack propagated. We need proper calving laws, to be able to describe the evolution of ice sheets over centuries.

Whilst such glacial splits are natural and are not automatically assumed to be a by-product of climate change, which is affecting the West Atlantic Ice Sheet (in fact similar splits occurred in 2001 and 2007), the PIG is of particular concern to scientists such as Humbert.

Satellite readings have revealed a drastic thinning in the thickness of the PIG in recent years, and it has been confirmed that this particular glacier is the most rapidly shrinking glacier on the planet, causing great concern to glaciologists across the globe. This extreme ice loss is thought to be due to a rise in the temperature of the water around and under the glacier, which contributes to the melting of the ice shelf. The PIG is of particular concern as it drains up to 10 per cent of all the ice flowing off the west of the continent, and as such, its melting contributes to the rise in sea levels much more significantly than any other one of the world’s glaciers.

Scientists will now wait to see just how long it takes for the iceberg to float away from the glacier and begin to move out of the bay in front of it, a process which could take several months.

Sources include BBC News

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