A massive iceberg, larger than the city of Chicago, broke off of Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier on Monday, July 8 and is now floating freely in the Amundsen Sea, according to a team of German scientists.
The new iceberg measures about 278 square miles (720 square kilometeres) and was detected by TerraSAR-X, satellite operated by the German Space Agency (DLR). Scientists with NASA’s Operation IceBridgefirst discovered a giant crack in the Pine Island Glacier in October 2011, as they were flying over and surveying the area.
At that time, the crack was about 15 miles (24 km) in length and 164 feet (50 meters) in width, according to researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany.
In May 2012, satellite images revealed a second rift had formed near the northern side of the first crack.
“As a result of these cracks, one giant iceberg broke away from the glacier tongue,” Angelika Humbert, a glaciologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute, said in a statement.
Before the giant glacier broke off, the researchers studied the high resolution radar images taken by the TerraSAR-X satellite to track the changes in the two cracks, and to observe the processes behind glacier movements.
Using the images we have been able to follow how the larger crack on the Pine Island Glacier extended initially to a length of 28 kilometers (17 miles),” Nina Wilkens, one of the team researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute, said in a statement. “Shortly before the ‘birth’ of the iceberg, the gap then widened bit by bit so that it measured around 540 meters (1,770 feet) at its widest point.
Humbert says that Glaciers drop icebergs as part of their cyclical lives, but it is still somewhat of a mystery how it actually happens. The glacier is the longest and fastest-changing on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Humbert and her group of researchers didn’t tie the break of the giant iceberg as a direct consequence of global warming, but other scientists such as marine geologists at the British Antarctic Survey are investigating whether global warming is thinning Antarctica’s ice sheets and speeding up the glacier’s movements.
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[Image via NASA]