The European Space Agency (ESA) released a video this past week showing the evolution of two very large and disconcerting cracks in Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier. They have each grown to 20km in length and could shear off a hunk of ice the size of Paris and Manhattan combined.
The Pine Island Glacier—located at the base of the Antarctic Peninsula on the western side of the continent—has always shipped Antarctic ice out to sea at prolific levels, but it’s become famous in recent years due to its ever increasing output. These new cracks are just the latest development in a flurry of epic calving events at Pine Island. These used to occur about every six years but are now happening on an almost yearly basis.
The ESA compiled images of the cracks taken by one of their two polar orbiting Sentinel-1 satellites to make the video. Sentinel-1 is continuously monitoring land, sea, and sea ice conditions with a synthetic-aperture radar instrument that allows it to take pictures in all weather conditions and even at night—a key feature in high latitudes, which experience long periods of darkness in the winter months. These satellites are part of ESA’s larger Copernicus mission.
Pine Island Glacier feeds into a floating body of ice called an ice shelf. A recent study published in Science Advances this month revealed that these ice shelves, and Pine Island Glacier in particular, are experiencing accelerated melting from underneath, as a combination of fast moving and buoyant plumes of warm water carve troughs into their bottom surface. This makes the shelves more prone to large calving events and ultimately to shrinkage and retreat.
“Warm water circulation is attacking the undersides of these ice shelves at their most vulnerable points,” said lead earth scientist and lead author of the report, Karen Alley. “These effects matter,” she added. “But exactly how much, we don’t yet know. We need to.”
The large calving event building at Pine Island Glacier also comes at a period of particular concern for melting glaciers around the world. The International Panel on Climate Change released its special report on the state of the Earth’s cryosphere last month in which it predicted continued warming of ocean waters and increasing mass loss of the Antarctic Ice Sheets—of which Pine Island Glacier is a part—throughout the 21st century.
Story telling can be a powerful tool in sharing unique human experiences between individuals. A good story is thought-provoking, captivating, and can have the power to influence and inspire people and their ideas.
The Global Oneness Project believes that stories play a very important role in education. This nonprofit provides lesson plans, images, films, and other educational resources for classrooms for free, with a goal to connect people through stories on issues such as climate change, food scarcity, and migration.
“Through featuring individuals and communities impacted by these issues, the stories and lessons provide opportunities to examine universal themes which include the following: identity, diversity, hope, resilience, imagination, adversity, empathy, love, and responsibility, and our common humanity.” they wrote on their About Us page.
Stories and lesson plans by the Global Oneness Project have been featured on numerous publications, including National Geographic, PBS, and TED Ed.
One of the project’s lesson plans is based on a photo essay by Camille Seaman, an award-winning photographer based in California.’Melting Away‘ features images of the rapidly melting icebergs in the polar regions of Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland, and Antarctica. In her essay, Seaman shares her personal experience of traveling across these regions, and witnessing the consequences of climate change.
Funded by a treaty of 13 nations, the International Ice Patrol is operated by a U.S. Coast Guard unit, which conducts aerial surveys of the Grand Banks, a region southeast of Newfoundland prone to rough seas and a density of icebergs. Institutions from both the U.S. and Canada comprise the North American Ice Service, which creates a daily iceberg analysis for mariners. The patrol was founded following the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912, and, except for the two World Wars, has been in continuous operation since 1913.
However, Mark Carey, an environmental historian at the University of Oregon, says it is overly simplistic to equate iceberg production and climate change, as even growing glaciers calve.
“The classic iconic representation of global climate change is a glacier calving into the ocean, creating icebergs,” he said. “When reports of high numbers of icebergs in the North Atlantic appear, like in the last few years, people might simply think that this is because glaciers in Greenland are shrinking fast and shedding ice.”
In fact, he says the journey an iceberg takes from a Greenland glacier to “Iceberg Alley,” a famously dense area of icebergs on the Grand Banks, is long and complex, and involves more than just glacial calving.
First, a newly-birthed iceberg may never actually leave the fjord in which it was formed. If it does reach the open ocean, it will follow the Labrador Current, which flows north up the west coast of Greenland and south along the east coast of Canada, for as long as two years. During this time, the iceberg may become trapped in sea ice or run aground in shallows. The vast majority of icebergs never reach Iceberg Alley, where the International Ice Patrol counts the icebergs that drift into shipping lanes below 48 degrees north latitude.
“Winter sea ice conditions also affect whether a berg survives and where it goes, so regional weather and not just global climate influence the iceberg journey,” Carey said.
Nevertheless, icebergs can have dangerous outcomes for ships traveling through the North Atlantic region, as the world saw during the sinking of the Titanic and the Danish ship Hans Hedtoft in 1959.
History and global politics makes the North Atlantic especially sensitive to the movements of icebergs. “The North Atlantic has been an integral part of the international political, economic and security system of the day for up to a millennium,” said Rasmus Bertlesen, professor of Northern Studies at the University of Tromsø.
“These shipping lanes are very important, since the U.S., the Canadian East Coast, and Western Europe are power houses of the world economy,” he added.
No ship has collided with an iceberg in the region monitored since the M.S. Hans Hedtoft sank on its maiden voyage. To keep up with fast-moving ice, the Danish Meteorological Institute has recently launched a project that uses artificial intelligence to analyze ice distribution. Though Bertelsen agrees more frequent maps are necessary, he fears history will repeat itself.
“North Atlantic shipping has been the story of technological hubris, human disaster and then technological safeguards,” he said. “Hopefully, these artificial intelligence ice maps will not be the Titanic or Hans Hedtoft of our time leading to disaster and reckoning.”
Carey believes that the portrayal of icebergs as threats to shipping also adds allure to the subject, spurring tourism in places like Newfoundland and Alaska.
“Icebergs are a huge tourist draw to Newfoundland and Labrador,” she said.
Davis created the Facebook page to facilitate iceberg sightings in the region. Currently, the page has 7,139 members, who monitor the photographs of icebergs and their locations.
Davis personally witnessed the higher density of icebergs in the North Atlantic over the last four years, and added that many of the icebergs drifted near coastal communities, where people were able to photograph them. The shipping industry is well-practiced at dealing with these icebergs, she said. More concerning to her is the interaction between icebergs and the offshore oil industry.
Carey concurs with Davis’ concern. “Icebergs only pose a risk when people get close to the bergs, or when an iceberg drifts close to human populations, infrastructure like docks or drilling platforms, or boats,” he said.
In March 2017, for example, Husky Energy’s SeaRose floating platform came within 463 meters of a large iceberg, threatening 84 crew members and 340,000 barrels of crude oil aboard. The board that monitors industry in the oilfields off Labrador suspended operations for SeaRose, the first such suspension in over a decade.
“Iceberg risk is not just about iceberg production or numbers of bergs in the shipping lanes,” Carey said. “It is also influenced by how often and how many people live, work, travel, and vacation near icebergs–and these numbers are on the rise all the time.”
“It is my life’s mission to convey the urgency of climate change through art,” states Zaria Forman. And she does this through painstakingly drawn, detailed pastel drawings that look so real they can often be mistaken for photographs.
She captures the beauty of places like Hawaii, the Maldives, Greenland, and Antarctica.
Her series of pastel drawings, Antarctica, in particular, captures landscapes in flux. “As temperatures rise, glaciers melt more rapidly than they grow. Many of us are intellectually aware that climate change is our greatest global challenge, and yet the problem may feel abstract, the imperiled landscapes remote. The scale and detail of my drawings are meant to make Antarctica’s magnificence and ephemerality visceral to the viewer, emulating the overpowering experience of being beside a glacier,” says Zaria.
A reproduction of her work Whale Bay, Antarctica, No.4, 84×144, 2016, and a time-lapse video depicting the process of making the work, is currently being featured as part of the first exhibition, In Human Time, for the Climate Museum in New York. It is presented in partnership with the Parsons School of Design’s Sheila Johnson Design Center at The Arnold and Sheila Aronson Galleries on Fifth Avenue and will be exhibited till January 15.
For more information on the exhibition and the Climate Museum, visit climatemuseum.org.
Whale Bay is a place on the western side of the Antarctic peninsula where icebergs calved from a nearby glacier are carried by wind and water to their final resting place. The icebergs scrape against the shallow bay becoming “grounded” (they remain there until they have completely melted). As the bay encloses grounded icebergs, it is also called an “iceberg graveyard.”
Located in Mount Robson Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada, Berg Lake tends to be filled with icebergs throughout the year. Visitors often see ice break off or calve into the lake, which is partially fed by Berg Glacier. Known for its glacier, floating icebergs, and bright bluish-green water, the lake is a popular destination for hikers. Berg Glacier sits atop Mount Robson, the tallest peak in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Mount Robson is part of a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains known as the Rainbow Range. Named “Tsitsutl,” meaning “painted mountains” in the local dialect, Rainbow Range is made of lava and rock that comes in hues of red, orange, lavender and yellow, noticeable on sunny days.
Mount Robson Provincial Park, including Berg Lake and Glacier, was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1990. For a visceral experience of the park, attend the 7th Annual Mount Robson Marathon to be held on September 9, 2017. The marathon will take runners up the world-renowned Berg Lake Trail. Below, you can find a video of hiker Phil Armitage on the trail.
Seals are some of the cutest animals found in the Arctic and the Antarctic. This week’s photo friday features seals carrying out their daily activities on icebergs, which are important environmental features in their chilly habitats. The photos include leopard seals and crabeater seals among other species.
Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.