On Wednesday, scientists from Operation IceBridge, NASA’s airborne survey of polar ice, spotted a giant iceberg that broke off from Pine Island Glacier in Antartica.
It was the first time anyone has laid eyes on the giant iceberg, dubbed B-46 by the U.S. National Ice Center and estimated to be three times the size of Manhattan. The iceberg calved from Pine Island Glacier in late October.
“From this perspective at 1,500 feet, it’s actually really difficult to grasp the entire scale of what we just looked at,” said Brooke Medley, Operation IceBridge’s deputy project scientist who has studied Pine Island Glacier for 12 years. “It was absolutely stunning. It was spectacular and inspiring and humbling at the same time.”
Last week, Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier calved a massive iceberg, B-46, into the Amundsen Sea. https://t.co/NZlNvh6bI2 pic.twitter.com/p8slkJBFC1
— NASA ICE (@NASA_ICE) November 8, 2018
The National Ice Center, which tracks icebergs for navigation purposes, estimated on October 29 the surface area of B-46 at 66 square nautical miles. Satellite imagery and the IceBridge flight on Wednesday showed, however, that the main iceberg is already beginning to break up.
Cracks wove through B-46, and upturned bergy bits floated in wide rifts. The iceberg will probably break down into smaller icebergs within a month or two, Medley said.
New sea ice forms in a rift created when the B-46 iceberg broke off from Pine Island Glacier. (Photo Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer)
Operation IceBridge flew over Pine Island Glacier as part of a decades-long campaign to collect year-over-year measurements of sea ice, glaciers, and critical regions of Earth’s ice sheets. As NASA’s DC-8, an airborne science laboratory, flew its pre-determined flight pattern, the new iceberg came into view.
Ice shelves, floating glacial ice areas that surround much of Antarctica, calve icebergs as part of the natural process of ice flowing out to sea, according to NASA. But scientists are also watching closely to see if the frequency of calving events is changing over time.
View of the rift between Pine Island Glacier and the new giant iceberg, B-46, in Antarctica. (Photo Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer)
Surveys of Pine Island are one of the highest priority missions for IceBridge, in part because of the glacier’s significant impact on sea level rise, according to NASA.
Enough ice flows from Pine Island and its neighboring glacier Thwaites to raise sea levels by more than 1 millimeter per decade, according to a study led by Medley. And by the end of this century, that number is projected to at least triple.
“Both Pine Island and Thwaites are ready to go and to take their neighboring glaciers with them,” Medley said. “Ice is getting sucked out into the ocean – and it’s hard to stop it.”
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