A huge area of the ice shelf measuring 720 square kilometers broke away on July 8, 2013, from the Pine Island glacier, the longest and fastest flowing glacier in the Antarctic. It is now floating in the Amundsen Sea in the form of a very large iceberg.
Scientists of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research have been following this natural spectacle via the earth observation satellites TerraSAR-X from the German Space Agency (DLR) and have documented it in many individual images. The data is intended to help solve the physical puzzle of this “calving“.
Scientists from NASA discovered the first crack in the glacier tongue on October 14, 2011 when flying over the area. At that time it was some 24 kilometres long and 50 metres wide.
”As a result of these cracks, one giant iceberg broke away from the glacier tongue. It measures 720 square kilometres and is therefore almost as large as the city of Hamburg“, reports Prof. Angelika Humbert, ice researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute.
Pine Island Glacier Antarctica July, 2013
On the left handside the newly formed isberg with the a size of 720 square kilometres is visible. Photo: DLR
The glaciologist and her team used the high resolution radar images of the DLR earth observation satellite TerraSAR-X to observe the progress of the two cracks and to better understand the physical processes behind the glacier movements. The researchers were thus able to measure the widths of the gaps and calculate the flow speed of the ice.
”Above the large crack, the glacier last flowed at a speed of twelve metres per day“, reports Humbert’s colleague Dr. Dana Floricioiu from DLR. And Nina Wilkens, PhD graduate in Prof. Humbert’s team, adds: “Using the images we have been able to follow how the larger crack on the Pine Island glacier extended initially to a length of 28 kilometres. Shortly before the “birth” of the iceberg, the gap then widened bit by bit so that it measured around 540 metres at its widest point.“
The scientists incorporate these and other TerraSAR-X satellite data in computer simulations using which they are able to model the break and flow mechanisms of the ice masses. “Glaciers are constantly in motion. They have their very own flow dynamics. Their ice is exposed to permanent tensions and the calving of icebergs is still largely unresearched “, explains ice modeller Angelika Humbert.
Topographic map of Antarctica, the Pine Island Glacier is marked in red. Graphic: Angelika Humbert, Alfred Wegener Institute
Are ice breaks caused by climate change? Angelika Humbert does not so far see any direct connection: “The creation of cracks in the shelf ice and the development of new icebergs are natural processes“, says the glaciologist. However, the Pine Island glacier, which flows from the Hudson mountains to the Amundsen Sea, was the fastest flowing glacier in the Western Antarctic with a flow speed of around 4 kilometres per year. This speed is less caused by the rising air temperatures, however, and is more attributable to the fact that the wind directions in the Amundsen Sea have altered. ”The wind now brings warm sea water beneath the shelf ice. Over time, this process means that the shelf ice melts from below, primarily at the so-called grounding line, the critical transition to the land ice“, says the scientist.
For the Western Antarctic ice shelf, an even faster flow of the Pine Island glacier would presumably have serious consequences. “The Western Antarctic land ice is on land which is deeper than sea level. Its “bed” tends towards the land. The danger therefore exists that these large ice masses will become unstable and will start to slide“, says Angelika Humbert. If the entire West Antarctic ice shield were to flow into the Ocean, this would lead to a global rise in sea level of around 3.3 metres.
Pine Island glacier last calved a significant iceberg in 2001, and some scientists have speculated recently that it was primed to calve again. But until an Oct. 14 IceBridge flight of NASA's DC-8, no one had seen any evidence of the ice shelf beginning to break apart. Since then, a more detailed look back at satellite imagery seems to show the first signs of the crack in early October.
While Pine Island has scientists' attention because it is both big and unstable – scientists call it the largest source of uncertainty in global sea level rise projections – the calving underway now is part of a natural process for a glacier that terminates in open water. Gravity pulls the ice in the glacier westward along Antarctica's Hudson Mountains toward the Amundsen Sea. A floating tongue of ice reaches out 30 miles into the Amundsen beyond the grounding line, the below-sea-level point where the ice shelf locks onto the continental bedrock. As ice pushes toward the sea from the interior, inevitably the ice shelf will crack and send a large iceberg free.
"We are actually now witnessing how it happens and it’s very exciting for us," said IceBridge project scientist Michael Studinger, Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. "It’s part of a natural process but it’s pretty exciting to be here and actually observe it while it happens..."
Featured image: Pine Island Glacier Antarctica July, 2013. On the left handside the newly formed isberg with the a size of 720 square kilometres is visible. Photo: DLR