A new ice island is about to form as spring and summer arrive in Antarctica. NASA researchers working on Pine Island Glacier (PIG) as part of the IceBridge Mission discovered a 30 km wide rift some 25 km from the ocean during overflights in a DC-8 research aircraft.The rift will eventually will break off into a tabular iceberg about 10 times the size of Manhattan. The rift is wide enough to be visible in optical satellite imagery that has a spatial resolution of 250 meters. A BBC report credits NASA scientist stating that this large calving of an ice island is part of a natural, roughly decadal cycle.
Pine Island Glacier from MODIS/Terra with crack visible at 250-m spatial resolution.
A crack runs across the floating ice shelf of Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica, seen from NASA's DC-8 on Oct. 14, 2011. Credit: Michael Studinger/NASA
Antarctic massive ice sheets contain 70% of all freshwater and 90% of all ice on earth. Most of this is contained within the stable East Antarctic ice sheet where temperatures have increased little. In contrast, the West Antarctic ice sheet has seen warming by about 0.2 degrees Celsius and a net loss of ice to raise global sea level by perhaps 2-3 inches in 100 years. The grounding line Pine Island Glacier (where ocean, bedrock, and ice meet) has retreated for several decades as warmer ocean waters near the bottom cross a sill and plunge into a landward depression of the bedrock. This leads to enhanced melting of the floating ice-sheet and a potential instability that could lead to a collapse of the ice-shelf and much enhanced discharge of the Pine Island Glacier to draw down a large fraction of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Bottom topography under Pine Island Glacier and grounding line. Blue colors show greater depths and its connection to the open ocean (bottom, north). (credit: NASA)
A similar physical process, albeit at a smaller scale, is potentially working at Petermann Glacier off Greenland where the grounding line is at a local maximum of bedrock elevation. Petermann’s grounding line has probably not moved substantially the last 100 years or so.
More detail on the evolving Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica event can be found at a NASA media briefing.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) declined to fund a Physical-Ocean-Ice-Shelf-Experiment (POISE) at Petermann Fjord in northern Greenland this year. The reviews by three anonymous peers, a panel of eight scientists, and two sympathetic program managers were all very good, but not without criticism.
Floating ice shelf of Petermann Glacier in August 2009 as seen from a helicopter of the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen. View is to the south-east with the glacier to the left and the ocean to the right. Photo by David Riedel, British Columbia.
Our admittedly expensive 4-year proposal was rejected along with at least five competing proposals in the same general subject area, because we did not show why a study of ice-ocean interaction of glaciers and ice-sheets has to take place at Petermann Glacier, a remote location less than 800 miles from the North Pole. Claiming this glacier to be unique, we made a fatal mistake, because NSF cares little about each glacier, but cares much about the underlying physical problem, that is, how do tidewater glaciers with floating ice shelves interact with the ocean they float on.
There are several glaciers in Greenland that have extensive ice shelves. To the best of my knowledge, they are all in northern Greenland. Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden and Petermann Fjord contain the largest floating areas exposed to the oceans on the east and west coasts of Greenland, respectively. Both these glaciers have seen preliminary studies during the last 15 years including radar measurements that describe the geometry of the ice shelves, the bedrock below, as well as the ice streams to connect the glaciers to the inland ice. Smaller and less studied glaciers with past or present ice shelves are Steensby, Ryder, and C.F. Ostenfeldt in the north-west as well as Academy and Marie-Sophie glaciers in the north-east (Weidick, 1995).
The most extensive ice shelves are located around Antarctica, however, and one thus may wonder, what uniform physics can and should be studied in northern Greenland that also applies to the ice sheets in the south? I would need some scaling law or normalization scheme that connects many glaciers into an organizational scheme. In physical oceanography the near-balance of a density-driven (internal) pressure gradient and the effects of a rotating earth provides a dynamical scale that connects river discharges off Delaware, with ice patterns off Eastern Greenland, and algae bloom patters off northern Norway, among many other phenomena. What dynamical metric connects the ice sheets of Greenland to each other and to those off Antarctica?