New Ice Island in Antarctica

By Marc Boucher
Status Report
July 24, 2013
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New Ice Island in Antarctica
New Ice Island in Antarctica

The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument–built by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry for NASA’s Terra satellite–acquired this image of two widening cracks along an edge of the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica.
To the west of the cracks–in the image, north is to the upper right–a new 720-square-kilometer (280-square-mile) ice island was formed.

The false-color image above was composed from thermal infrared wavelengths of light because natural-color imagery is not possible during the lightless nights of Antarctic winter. Lighter shades of white and gray are cooler, while darker areas are warmer and typically reveal the cracks and exposed water. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, or DLR) captured a synthetic aperture radar image of the same cracks and ice island on July 8, 2013, with the TerraSAR-X satellite, which can also image the ice through darkness and clouds.

The rift that led to this new ice island was discovered in October 2011 during an instrumented airplane flight in NASA’s annual Operation IceBridge campaign. At the time, the crack was about 24 kilometers (15 miles) long and 50 meters (160 feet) wide. For two years, researchers examined satellite and airborne imagery, as well as data from ice-based instruments, to see when the rift would fully open. In May 2012, they observed the opening of a second crack. And just before the calving this summer, the original rift was roughly 28 kilometers (17 miles) long and 540 meters (1,770 feet) wide.

Though the ice island is adjacent to open water in Pine Island Bay and the Amundsen Sea, it did not appear to move much in the week between the TerraSAR-X and ASTER images. It is unclear whether it will take days, months, or years before the huge iceberg moves out to the sea. Rock and ice along the horizontal edges could create friction and slow its movement; winds and sea ice could press it against the coast; or an underwater ridge or formation could ground the ice from below.

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