Four months after a chunk of ice the size of Trinidad and Tobago snapped off a vast Antarctic ice shelf, NASA shared the first photos of the massive iceberg — one of the largest ever seen on Earth.
The images of the iceberg, known as A-68, were taken from a small plane during NASA’s annual Operation IceBridge, a month-long mission to map Antarctic ice via aerial photography and to document its terrain using lasers that measure ice depth and other tools that sense gravity and magnetic changes.
The sheer size of A-68 has stunned even the most seasoned Antarctic researchers.
“I was shocked, because we flew over the iceberg itself and it looks like it’s still part of the ice shelf, in terms of how large it is and the surface texture,” Operation IceBridge scientist Nathan Kurtz, who took the photographs, told the Washington Post. “To see it fully detached, to see this massive block of ice floating out there, was pretty shocking.”
The trillion-ton, 2,200 square-mile iceberg first separated from the vast Larsen ice-shelf in mid-July. The 100-mile long rift that caused it to break off had accelerated rapidly since 2011. Scientists say this is evidence of the impact of climate change on crucial polar ice shelves.
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Ice shelves are thick, permanent floating sheets of ice anchored to frozen land masses which form as glaciers creep toward the sea. Most ice shelves are located along the coast of Antarctica and when the shelves disintegrate — or break off in huge chunks as A-68 did — glaciers flow into the ocean up to five times faster, hastening sea-level rise.
Antarctica contains 90% of the world’s ice.
“There is enough ice in Antarctica that if it all melted, or even just flowed into the ocean, sea levels [would] rise by 60 meters,” climate change expert Martin Siegert told the Guardian in July.
Since A-68 was already floating atop the water, scientists believe the massive chunk of ice will not immediately contribute to sea-level rise, but they are unable to predict the iceberg’s trajectory or how quickly it may melt if it floats into warmer water.
One thing scientists are certain of is that these events are a cause for concern.
“For me, there is no doubt that this event is not part of a natural cycle,” NASA researcher Eric Rignot told the Washington Post. “This calving is unique in the history of the ice shelf since first seen by human eyes [in 1893].”