Massive iceberg breaks off Antarctica. What does it mean?

Jessica Dunker • Updated Jul 12, 2017 at 4:35 PM

With climate change a heavily debated topic in the United States and around the world, the term “global warming” can be a bit taboo.

While the majority of scientists concur that humans are contributing to the changes, some people believe it to be a hoax.

This week, news broke that on the Antarctic Peninsula, a massive iceberg broke off the edge of the ice shelf and is floating free in the ocean, raising questions about whether climate change was a factor.

This isn’t just any ordinary iceberg.

As reported by the National Public Radio, this chunk of ice is approximately the size of Delaware, making it one of the largest recorded icebergs in history: approximately 2,300 square miles.

Dr. Andrew Joyner, assistant professor in East Tennessee State University’s Department of Geosciences, said icebergs are “a natural thing,” but the size of this iceberg is the most unique facet.

“It is pretty common. … You definitely can’t say that this specific event is climate change related,” Joyner said.

Scientists have been studying this ice sheet since 2014, when they noticed a break in the ice. Now the ice has finally come free, exposing the glaciers behind it.

The Associated Press reports the iceberg has twice the volume of Lake Erie and weighs 1.12 trillion tons.

According to Joyner, there are three concerns:

• The first is that the iceberg makes its way into shipping channels. Ships would need to take a different route, which could slow business. 

• The second issue could be the iceberg breaking apart and floating into warmer climates. The ice would then rapidly melt and cause the sea levels to rise 1 centimeter. While this doesn’t seem like much, in the natural balance, this would cause salt water levels to affect coastal regions at or below sea level. In areas like these, in marshes especially, freshwater plants would be more at risk by coming into contact with salt water. They could begin to die out, which would affect the animals, which would affect other vegetation, throughout the ecosystem.

• The final problem that may affect generations to come is the continent’s glaciers’ being able to touch the ocean. Before the separation, Joyner said, between 18 and 25 miles separated the Antarctic Ocean from the glaciers. Now that it’s gone, if these glaciers begin to break off and melt, sea levels will most certainly rise.

Scientists have been concerned about this facet for decades.

“You may not think it is an impact today, but a centimeter here, a centimeter there,” Joyner said.

Joyner said there is no need for alarm because there are no immediate effects: “I think with this large of an ice sheet to melt, which would take a decade or two, it would cause a centimeter rise in sea level, which is significant, but it wouldn’t happen tomorrow.”

But it does raise the question whether this is a natural occurrence or if humans played a part.

Scientists are still studying the cause of this break and keeping close watch on the iceberg, but there has been no official explanation for the iceberg’s breakaway.

The Associated Press reports that NASA and European Space Agency satellites have been monitoring the shelf, offering dramatic pictures of the break that heightened interest beyond the scientific community. The final break was revealed in a thermal infrared image from NASA's Aqua MODIS satellite instrument.

Researchers from the U.K.-based Antarctic project MIDAS have been monitoring the rift in Larsen C for years, following the collapse of the Larsen A shelf in 1995 and the breakup of the Larsen B shelf in 2002.

The project, which is investigating the effects of a warming climate through a combination of fieldwork, satellite observation and computer simulation, describes the iceberg as one of the largest ever recorded.

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