NASA releases wondrous aerial photos of giant new Antarctic iceberg
Each Antarctic spring and summer, NASA flies special aircraft over the continent to keep tabs on how global warming is altering the landscape. The agency does the same in the Arctic each summer, for a project known as Operation IceBridge.
Just a few days ago, a NASA P-3 Orion aircraft flew from Ushuaia, Argentina, out over the Larsen C Ice Shelf, including the new, Delaware-sized iceberg that the shelf gave birth to sometime between July 10 and July 12 of this year. The iceberg, named A-68, was one of the largest ever observed on Earth, and though it has shed some small sections since then, it remains a behemoth.
The NASA images, posted to the agency’s social media accounts, constitute the first time we’ve seen this iceberg up close with the human eye. Until now, all the views of it have been with the aid of remote sensing, primarily using satellites that could pierce the Antarctic winter darkness using specially-designed instruments.
On September 16, the space agency provided us with the first sunlit images of the iceberg, which still has not yet drifted totally out of sight from the ice shelf it came from.
The iceberg itself does not pose a danger, except to ships in the area. It won’t immediately add to sea level rise, since it has already been floating in the water like an ice cube in a glass. But there is a chance that by breaking off the Larsen C ice shelf, which is located in a rapidly warming part of Antarctica, it may hasten the ice shelf’s demise. That could, in turn, speed up the flow of inland ice into the sea, which would add to sea level rise.
Nearby ice shelves, including the Larsen B Ice Shelf, have already disintegrated, and recent research has shown that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet as well as the East Antarctic Ice Sheet are more vulnerable to melting than previously thought as air and sea temperatures increase.
What happens to Antarctica’s massive ice sheets is of huge importance to the rest of the world, since coastal megacities are extremely vulnerable to a rapid rise in sea level.
One study, published in the journal Nature in 2016, projected more than a meter, or 3.4 feet, of sea level rise from West Antarctica by the year 2100. The real amount of sea level rise experienced by any given location worldwide would be far higher, though, considering this estimate excludes the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet as well.
The study projected a calamitous 15 meters, or 50 feet, of sea level rise by the year 2500, which would sink much of Florida, Louisiana, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia, and other populated coastal regions.
So, while the iceberg itself is a natural marvel to look at, it serves as a reminder of the need for scientists to race to understand how stable our planet’s ice sheets are before time runs out.