Huge ice island could pose threat to oil, shipping

August 11, 2010 By KARL RITTER , Associated Press Writer
This combination of two satellite images provided by NASA and taken on July 28, 2010, at left, and Aug. 5, 2010, at right, shows the Petermann Glacier in Northern Greenland. A giant ice island, seen in image at right, has broken off the Petermann Glacier. A University of Delaware researcher says the floating ice sheet covers 100 square miles (260 sq. kilometers) _ more than four times the size of New York's Manhattan Island. (AP Photo/NASA)

(AP) -- An island of ice more than four times the size of Manhattan is drifting across the Arctic Ocean after breaking off from a glacier in Greenland.

Potentially in the path of this unstoppable giant are oil platforms and shipping lanes - and any collision could do untold damage. In a worst case scenario, large chunks could reach the heavily trafficked waters where another Greenland iceberg sank the Titanic in 1912.

It's been a summer of near biblical climatic havoc across the planet, with wildfires, heat and smog in Russia and killer floods in Asia. But the moment the cracked last week - creating the biggest Arctic island in half a century - may symbolize a warming world like no other.

"It's so big that you can't prevent it from drifting. You can't stop it," said Jon-Ove Methlie Hagen, a glaciologist at the University of Oslo.

Few images can capture the world's climate fears like a 100-square- mile (260-sqare-kilometer) chunk of ice breaking off Greenland's vast ice sheet, a reservoir of freshwater that if it collapsed would raise global sea levels by a devastating 20 feet (6 meters).

The world's newest ice island already is being used as a powerful emblem in the global warming debate, with U.S. Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts suggesting it could serve as a home for climate change skeptics.

Researchers are in a scramble to plot the trajectory of the floating ice shelf, which is moving toward the Nares Strait separating Greenland's northwestern coast and Canada's Ellsemere Island.

If it makes it into the strait before the winter freeze - due to start next month - it would likely be carried south by ocean currents, hugging Canada's east coast until it enters waters busy with oil activities and shipping off Newfoundland.

"That's where it starts to become dangerous," said Mark Drinkwater, of the .

The Canadian Ice Service estimates the journey will take one to two years. It's likely to break up as it bumps into other icebergs and jagged islands. The fragments would be further ground down by winds and waves and would start to melt as they move into warmer waters.

"But the fragments may still be quite large," warned Trudy Wohlleben, a Canadian ice forecaster, who first spotted the massive chunk of ice on satellite images last Thursday.

The chunks of ice could be large enough to threaten Canada's offshore platforms in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, said Wohlleben.

And, while it's possible to redirect smaller icebergs, by towing them or spraying them with water cannons, "I don't think they could do that with an iceberg this large," she said. "They would have to physically move the rig."

Moving an offshore platform is time-consuming and expensive - and very complicated in cases where they are fixed to the ocean floor.

While Greenland's glaciers break off thousands of icebergs into Arctic waters every year, scientists say this ice island is the biggest in the northern hemisphere since 1962.

It contains enough freshwater to keep the Hudson River flowing for more than two years, said Andreas Muenchow of the University of Delaware.

The drifting ice sheet is likely to remain at the heart of the global warming discussion during its journey.

While experts say it's difficult to directly tie the giant ice island to climate change because there are so many factors that affect glaciers in the area, the unusual event coincides with worrisome signs of warming in the Arctic.

Since 1970, temperatures have risen more than 4.5 degrees (2.5 degrees C) in much of the Arctic - much faster than the global average. In June the Arctic sea ice cover was at the lowest level for that month since records began in 1979, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The retreat of Greenland's glaciers, which has accelerated in recent years, is one of the least understood pieces of the climate puzzle.

A team of climate scientists who visited the Petermann glacier last year, expecting it to crack then, is now planning another trip within weeks.

"We did leave behind a couple of time-lapse cameras and 11 GPS (devices). Now we are scrambling to get up there and recover the data," said Jason Box, an expert on Greenland glaciers from the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University.

Box and two British researchers traveled to the glacier last year with Greenpeace activists who offered space aboard their ship, the Arctic Sunrise, to scientists studying climate change.

They were hoping to capture the event with cameras rolling, which would have been a powerful image just months before the Copenhagen climate talks that failed to produce a binding treaty to reduce heat-trapping gas emissions.

"It would have been nice if it had broken off last year," said Melanie Duchin, who led that Greenpeace expedition. "I mean ice melting, it doesn't get any simpler than that."

Still, she finds it ironic that the Petermann breakup coincides with another catastrophe linked to fossil fuels. The Arctic Sunrise is now in the Gulf of Mexico, surveying the massive oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

Explore further: Greenland glacier calves island four times the size of Manhattan


Related Stories

Setting sail with Greenpeace

September 7, 2009

A pioneering Greenpeace arctic expedition has joined forces with a University of St Andrews academic to investigate the impacts of climate change.

Melting glacier worries scientists

July 25, 2005

Scientists monitoring a Greenland glacier have found it is moving into the sea three times faster than a decade ago, The Independent reported Monday.

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3.3 / 5 (7) Aug 11, 2010
So the last big one in 1962 was over twice the size (230 sq. miles). Are we saying global warming has melted this one to become so much smaller?!

Yes, a deliberate absurdity, but as researchers are keen to point out, we must be very wary of making global warming interpretations of any single event. Much will be made of this one.
2.5 / 5 (8) Aug 11, 2010
Agreed Jimbaloid,

You can't point to any single event and say "A HA! Global Warming!". Skeptics like to do this all the time to try and disprove it, mostly the not so bright ones.

What we can say for sure is all the glaciers around the world are shrinking and the only identified cause is global warming, of which the only plausible identified cause is the factual double of CO2 which, based on mathematics and observation/measurement, couldn't have been caused by anything other than man.
2.6 / 5 (5) Aug 11, 2010
Or, it could just be increased solar activity, following years of solar inactivity?

Interesting reading on the subject can be found here as well:
3.7 / 5 (6) Aug 11, 2010
Don't think so jwalkeriii. There hasn't been anything significantly unusual with the sun, any minor solar variations wouldn't cause such a drastic change as to double the CO2 consentration in the air.

I just makes sense from a chemistry standpoint. We know CO2 absorbs significantly more IR radiation than air and releases more heat as a result. We now have twices as much CO2, so increases are expected. The Greenhouse effect is well establish scientific princple. Venus is constantly 200deg hotter than it would have been if CO2 wasn't so high there; I think it's like 75% of the atmosphere. Challenging whether the effect is real really isn't an option (it would be an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence). You can claim humans aren't responsible for the added CO2, but good luck with that.
3.4 / 5 (5) Aug 11, 2010
"it could just be increased solar activity, following years of solar inactivity?"

From your link:

"Solar variability certainly plays a minor role, but it looks like only a quarter of the recent variations can be attributed to the Sun. At most. During the initial discovery period of global warming, the magnitude of the influence of increased activity on the Sun was not well determined."

It goes on to explain how solar irradiance has been closely monitored by satellites for the past 30 years and adds:

"...the solar increases do not have the ability to cause large global temperature increases...greenhouse gases are indeed playing the dominant role..."

The upshot is that solar variability plays a small role in global warming.

3.4 / 5 (5) Aug 11, 2010
Agreed, it definitely plays a small roll. Just think about the distances involved and the inverse square law.

2.8 / 5 (5) Aug 11, 2010
This is a misleading article because they left out most of the press release from Andreas Muenchow. In his full statement he mentions that the Petermann glacier hasn't changed size in the last 100 years. He also says that this calving is part of the natural cycle of this glacier. I wonder why they left that part out?

Also, @gunslingor: google "glaciers growing" and you'll see that your statement about all glaciers shrinking is far from true. In fact they aren't even sure whether more are shrinking or growing right now. Only a handful of glaciers are monitored.
2.6 / 5 (5) Aug 11, 2010
"What we can say for sure is all the glaciers around the world are shrinking..."

What we can REALLY say for sure is ice caps are also shrinking on Mars.

What I can say for sure is, better hot than cold.
3 / 5 (4) Aug 11, 2010
I say better stable than variable.
3.7 / 5 (6) Aug 11, 2010
GSwift7, your saying glaciers are growing but we don't know whether they are shrinking or growing? That is false and we do know. Glaciers are well studied by many disciplines, these measurements occur frequently with or without global warming. remote monitoring via GBS is very cheap and is occuring. Pictures are worth a thousand words. Look for pictures around the world of any glacier in the 1950's then recently, obviously in the same season.

The are many sources dude, just google it and compare.
4.1 / 5 (9) Aug 11, 2010
I tried googling "glaciers growing" and the first page of results were from websites like:

I'm sensing a pattern here!

But lo and behold, a site called SkepticalScience( http://www.skepti...wing.htm )had a page about the "glaciers are growing" argument backed up with data accumulated by the World Glacier Monitoring Service( ). And their take?

"While there are isolated cases of growing glaciers, the overwhelming trend in glaciers worldwide is retreat. In fact, the global melt rate has been accelerating since the mid-1970s."

This topic has been discussed here before and the same arguments for "growing glaciers" advanced. But in the end, the majority of the world's glaciers are retreating. To argue otherwise is to ignore reality.
3.3 / 5 (7) Aug 11, 2010
We are seeing a concentrated media attack against the whole idea of human caused global warming from the burning of fossil fuels. There are two obvious sources:

One is corporate-controlled media releases from coal, oil and natural gas companies who are worried about their bottom line if carbon taxes are passed.

The other is people who are doing the frightened ostrich moves, because they are afraid to think about how their own greed for status through consumption has harmed the world for their children.

It's only human to react that way. Unfortunately, it's also human to have food wars, energy wars, and wars for living space (lebensraum, look it up).

If we don't stop doing the ostrich, we're going to be doing the dodo.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 12, 2010
yyz & ormondotvos:

Very well put guys, thank you. Wish there was some way I could add "yous guyses" as friends.
not rated yet Aug 12, 2010
This article is about the huge calving of the Petermann glacier. This glacier isn't shrinking according to the expert sighted by this article, who was the spokesperson for the official press release regarding this event. I have a real problem with this site's coverage of this type of event. They have a pattern of consistently breaking their own rules regarding content. If my post here included the political editorials sited above then it should be deleted according to their own rules. I don't see why nobody is miffed about the non-science of this section of physorg but me. The comments by Melanie Duchin (greenpeace spokesperson), and Edward Markey (leftist politician), are not relevant to this story in the least. According to the actual scientist involved, this event is nothing new, and it's not human-caused. Look for the original press release from Andreas Muenchow. According to him, this is just part of the natural cycle of this glacier and it hasn't grown or shrunk in the past 100yr
5 / 5 (2) Aug 12, 2010
That was the entire point of the discussion. Skeptics like to point to a single event and say, "A HA, proves global warming is wrong!"

Jimbaloid was being sarcastic when he said that, making fun of these guys with this article.

Then a skeptic came on and started spreading false facts. We had to set hims straight.

This isn't CNN or FOX news man... People talk... then the story dies..
not rated yet Aug 12, 2010
I'm not talking about whether global warming is right or wrong, just to be clear. I was just discussing the quality, or lack there of, of this article. It's just my opinion, but I really think this article was written horribly and should be rated zero for the reasons I pointed out. Almost 99% of the article is editorial and several parts are just plain misleading. Where's the science editor of this site?
5 / 5 (1) Aug 12, 2010
I don't think they have one. This site has been going downhill for quite a while, and never had great writers. Shame, I really like the google widget and the site format. They're also really slow to release stories.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 15, 2010
The day after this story broke, the spokesman announced there was no imminent danger posed by the breakaway ice but this site continues with the scare headline: why?
not rated yet Aug 18, 2010
@ yyz:

"But in the end, the majority of the world's glaciers are retreating. To argue otherwise is to ignore reality."

Correct in every way.

My statement was in regard to a prior post stating: "What we can say for sure is all the glaciers around the world are shrinking and the only identified cause is global warming"

That is incorrect in two ways: First, as you have clearly agreed with me, not all glaciers are shrinking. Some are growning, and the number is more significant than you suggest. Secondly, the causes of shrinking glaciers are diverse. It's not fair to say that the only cause is global warming, which is what gunslingor was suggesting. In the case of Greenland, for example, geothermal warming is melting a significant portion of the glaciers there, according to articles on this very site.

I rated your comment 5/5 for being reasonable and polite though.
not rated yet Aug 18, 2010
You need to look at the rate of shrinkage for the Greenland glacier your refering to. The SIGNIFICANT MAJORITY of glaciers around the world have been shrinking since the last ice age, otherwise, we'd still be in an ice age. The rates of shrinkage have increased drastically, without increases in geothermal energies globally.

These are global issues, stop trying to disprove using single examples, shows ignorance.

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