Satellite Images Capture Giant Iceberg Disintegrating In Antarctica

Pam Wright
Published: December 5, 2017

Animation using modified satellite images captured by the Copernicus Sentinel-1 to show the disintegration of the iceberg that calved off Pine Island Glacier in September 2017. (BAS/ESA)

Satellite images have captured the disintegration of the giant iceberg that broke off from the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica just two months ago. 

Back in September, the iceberg four times the size of Manhattan broke free from the glacier, fueling concerns of a runaway ice retreat. The calving became the second time in two years the glacier lost such a large piece. 

Two months later, the giant chunk of ice has crumbled into dozens of smaller pieces, satellite images captured by the European Space Agency show.

The breakup of the iceberg defies the expectations of scientists, who believed it would remain intact until it reached the Southern Ocean, reports the British Antarctic Society. Scientists say the giant iceberg became stuck by thick ice and didn't make it to the ocean before breaking up.

Greenhouse gas emissions-driven global warming is being blamed for an incredible amount of ice lost each year in Antartica. 

Pine Island, the fastest-melting glacier in Antarctica, loses an estimated 45 billion tons of ice each year to the ocean, which amounts to 1 millimeter of global sea level rise every eight years.

In a study released last year, researchers Seongsu Jeong and Ian Howat of Ohio State University found that Pine Island Glacier was “breaking up from the inside out.” 

(MORE: One of the Largest Icebergs Ever Recorded Breaks Off From Antarctica)

The ice shelf had developed a new way of losing ice, the researchers noted, with rifts forming in the center of the huge glacier rather than along its edges, which suggested the warmer waters reaching the base of the glacier is undermining it. 

“Rifts usually form at the margins of an ice shelf, where the ice is thin and subject to shearing that rips it apart,” said study leader Ian Howat, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State. “However, this latest event in the Pine Island Glacier was due to a rift that originated from the center of the ice shelf and propagated out to the margins. This implies that something weakened the center of the ice shelf, with the most likely explanation being a crevasse melted out at the bedrock level by a warming ocean.”

With each break, the glacier becomes more and more unstable, possibly leading to a runaway retreat in ice, the scientists said. 

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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