Skip to main content

Antarctic Glacier Primed to Form Iceberg

Pine Island Glacier Rift from Landsat
For the last year, the Pine Island Glacier in western Antarctica has been seemingly poised to calve off a giant iceberg, or icebergs, that in total would represent an area the size of New York City. Sea ice may have kept the iceberg from breaking free during the southern hemisphere's winter months, but as this Oct. 26, 2012 image from the Landsat 7 satellite shows, the calving front of the glacier is now generally free of sea ice due to the onset of spring. (Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

With its protective sea ice barrier melted away, Antarctica's Pine Island Glacier grows ever closer to finally dropping its New York City-sized iceberg into the ocean, according to NASA.

The giant crack in Pine Island Glacier was first spotted by scientists with NASA's IceBridge mission in 2011 as they surveyed the massive ice shelf in their specially equipped DC-8 plane. A second rift also formed and joined the northern side of the crack in May 2012, as captured on satellite images that track the incipient iceberg.

When IceBridge scientists returned this month, they discovered the original rift now has only about half a mile (less than 1 kilometer) to go before the 300-square-mile (770 square kilometers) berg forms.

The calving front of Pine Island Glacier is also free of sea ice, as shown in an Oct. 26 image from the Landsat 7 satellite. Warm spring temperatures are melting the sea ice that rings the continent during the winter, and winds help push the remaining ice out to sea. Sea ice acts as a buttress against waves, protecting the front of the glacier from calving, Kelly Brunt, a cryosphere scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a NASA video about the Pine Island Glacier rift.

"So the fact that there's no sea ice in front of the Pine Island Glacier right now implies that it might be in a state that's sort of primed to calve," she said.

Pine Island Glacier is one of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet's fastest-changing ice shelves, simultaneously thinning and flowing faster out to sea. Melting ice from the region represents the largest input to sea level rise from an Antarctic source, Brunt said. Once the glacier calves, the calving front will be further upstream from any calving front seen in the last 40 years, she added.

Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

Live Science Staff
For the science geek in everyone, Live Science offers a fascinating window into the natural and technological world, delivering comprehensive and compelling news and analysis on everything from dinosaur discoveries, archaeological finds and amazing animals to health, innovation and wearable technology. We aim to empower and inspire our readers with the tools needed to understand the world and appreciate its everyday awe.