NASA spots a New York City-sized iceberg as it breaks off Antarctic glacier

NASA researchers flying low over Antarctica’s vast, frozen landscape recently stumbled across a rare event in progress: the calving of a massive iceberg from one of Antarctica’s largest and fastest-moving glaciers. The scientists, who were taking part in NASA’s “Operation IceBridge,” were able to fly a follow-up mission above the Pine Island Glacier to gather unprecedented airborne measurements of an ongoing iceberg calving event. Typically, scientists can only learn of such events after they take place.

Since 2009, NASA scientists have been flying research aircraft loaded with sophisticated sensing equipment above Antarctic and Arctic ice, providing crucial data on ice sheet dynamics. This data is of great interest to the climate science community, considering the massive sea level rise that would occur if land-based ice sheets were to rapidly melt in coming decades.

Numerous studies have been published in the past several years that have raised alarms about the accelerating pace of ice loss in West Antarctica and Greenland. Operation IceBridge is meant to fill data gaps caused by a lag between two different ice-tracking satellites, thereby keeping data flowing to inform ongoing studies.

According to NASA, the last significant Pine Island Glacier calving event took place in 2001. It’s estimated that this one, an 18-mile long crack in the ice that was first spotted on Oct. 14 by a NASA DC-8 crew, probably began to form back in early October. Pine Island Glacier terminates in the sea, and has an “ice tongue” that juts out into the water. This makes the ice vulnerable to melting due to both rising air and water temperatures, although this calving event may have been a largely natural occurrence.

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