An enormous Antarctic glacier has let loose an iceberg over 100 square miles in size, the second time in two years it has lost such a large piece in a process that has scientists wondering if its behavior is changing for the worse.
The Pine Island Glacier is one of the largest in West Antarctica, a region that is Antarctica’s biggest ice loser. Pine Island, which loses an extraordinary 45 billion tons of ice to the ocean each year (equivalent to 1 millimeter of sea level rise every eight years), is 25 miles wide where its floating front touches the sea and rests on the seafloor in waters over half a mile deep. The glacier alone contains 1.7 feet of potential global sea level rise and is thought to be in a process of unstable, ongoing retreat.
That’s why scientists are watching it closely, and on Saturday, Stef Lhermitte, a satellite observation specialist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, posted a satellite image showing that Pine Island had “calved,” or broken off a piece of ice about 103 square miles in area. (For comparison, Manhattan is 22.83 square miles in size.) The rectangular piece of ice then appears to have lost some of its shape immediately as smaller pieces splintered off.
“It’s the fifth large calving event since 2000,” Lhermitte said. “This one and 2015, they were much further inland than the previous ones. So there has been a retreat of the calving front, specifically between 2011 and 2015.”
Researchers at NASA confirmed the break, as did another team of scientists studying Pine Island, Seongsu Jeong and Ian Howat of Ohio State University. They published a paper last year finding that Pine Island Glacier has developed a troubling new way of losing ice, with rifts forming in the center of its floating ice shelf from beneath, rather than at the sides. They suspect this is a function of warmer ocean waters reaching the base of the glacier and weakening it.
“We predicted that the rifting would result in more frequent calving, which is what’s happening here,” said Howat by e-mail. “If new rifts continue to form progressively inland, the significance to ice shelf retreat would be high.”
The ice loss in this event is nowhere near the size of the much publicized loss of an enormous ice island from the Larsen C ice shelf this year. However, in terms of sea level rise, changes at the Pine Island Glacier are far more consequential.
The current break was in the glacier’s floating ice shelf, which extends out over a deep ocean cavity. Further inland, the floating portion of the glacier ends and the ice slopes down and touches the seafloor at a vulnerable point called the “grounding line.” Changes in the temperature of waters reaching the grounding line in recent decades are widely believed to be the reason that Pine Island Glacier has been thinning and losing so much ice.
The glacier is feared to be in a process of unstable, runaway retreat. The grounding line has been moving inland, and as it retreats, the seafloor bed dips downward, meaning that the ocean becomes even deeper and the ice becomes even thicker. Thus, further retreat should increase the rate of outward flow and lead to even more ice loss.
The fact that large glaciers occasionally break off pieces in so-called “calving” events is not news. It’s normal behavior, said Knut Christianson, a glaciologist at the University of Washington in Seattle who studies Pine Island.
“However, the mode of calving of Pine Island Glacier appears to be shifting,” Christianson said by e-mail. The fact that the latest rift originated in the center of the ice shelf, rather than at one of its sides, suggests that it developed far inland at the grounding line as a result of the warm ocean hitting the base of the glacier, he said.
“This results in smaller but more frequent calving events,” he said.