Glacial "Aftershock" Causes City-Sized Chunk Of Ice To Break From Antarctica


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

Say hello to my little friend. ESO/NASA

Hey, remember that giant piece of Antarctica that’s been rapidly tearing away from the continent and threatening to go solo? Well, guess what – it’s still not quite broken off just yet. In fact, much to the irritation of the world’s scientific media, the Larsen C ice shelf is being a bit of a prima donna about the whole thing.

Fortunately, for those hoping for some good ice-on-sea action, another piece of Antarctica has decided to jump on the bandwagon and calve itself off. A part of Pine Island Glacier, a key component of the cryosphere of the south, has said its farewells and drifted off to melt away.


This particular glacier is a little fragile, and has been fragmenting quite dramatically since 2014. This newly shed piece is roughly the size of Manhattan, which sounds huge but is essentially impossible to physically imagine. Put it this way – it covers roughly the same area as 433.2 million large-sized pizzas. Yes, the topping is irrelevant here.

Like the aforementioned diva of a chunk of ice that is yet to break off from the Antarctic Peninsula, Pine Island Glacier is actually an ice shelf, which means it's already floating on the water – so its escape into the sea does not directly contribute to sea level rise. However, ice shelves hold back land-based glaciers and vast ice sheets, so when they go, the proverbial dam bursts.


A gorgeous timelapse of the latest calving event. ESO/NASA

Although it still takes a while – they don’t all tumble into the sea in one giant cacophonous collapse – the collapse of ice shelves, sometimes (but not always) linked to anthropogenic climate change, indirectly contributes to sea level rise. It’s almost never a good sight to behold, even if it does look pretty epic.


These latest images come courtesy of the Operational Land Imager (OLI) attached to the Landsat 8, and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) adorning NASA’s Terra satellite. Sometime between January 24 and January 26, Pine Island Glacier’s front end fell off.

Apparently, if you’re just tuning in now, you missed the best part of the calving process, which took place in 2015. Back then, a piece of ice 10 times the size of the newest addition to the fleet broke away.

“I think this event is the calving equivalent of an ‘aftershock’ following the much bigger event,” Ian Howat, a glaciologist at Ohio State University, said in a statement. “Apparently, there are weaknesses in the ice shelf – just inland of the rift that caused the 2015 calving – that are resulting in these smaller breaks.”

Either way, we can all agree that the Pine Island Glacier is really showing up Larsen C.




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