Video of a Freaky Rectangular Iceberg Has a Climate Change Backstory
Ice cutters, take notes from Mother Nature.
If Jack and Rose had encountered these pieces of ice, their shockingly rectangular shapes would have beaten a chunk of door as a survival raft any day. Although the couple didn’t see this incredible ice, the internet has.
Jeremy Harbeck, senior scientist of Operation IceBridge, NASA’s longest-running aerial survey of polar ice, spotted two unexpectedly tabular slabs of ice floating in the northern Antarctic Peninsula this month and the unexpectedly straight edges and 90-degree angles were shared widely on Twitter— more than 11,000 retweets and 23,000 likes on Twitter.
“Nature doesn’t draw straight lines,” commented Twitter user Chris Lowes.
But through a process called ice calving, Mother Nature begs to disagree.
How Did This Beautiful Iceberg Form?
Ice calving, aka glacier calving, describes the process in which chunks of ice fall off glaciers or ice shelves. It’s the kind of epic shot you’d expect to see in Planet Earth. It’s typically caused by glacial expansion and accompanied with a loud boom. The ice pieces of ice that tumble off are also known as growlers, bergy bits, or crevasse wall breakaways. These icebergs can also cause tsunami-like waves.
The bergy bit captured by Harbeck seems to be calved from Larsen C, an ice shelf that recently calved a piece of ice the size of Delaware.
“I thought it was pretty interesting; I often see icebergs with relatively straight edges, but I’ve not really seen one before with two corners at such right angles like this one had,” Harbeck says in a NASA statement released with the photo.
Despite its cookie-cutter appearance, the shape of this iceberg is perfectly natural, as it falls under the class of “tabular icebergs,” for its flat surface and sharp angles. They’re typically wider than they are deep. Compared to other tabular icebergs, this one is not large, perhaps a mile wide.
“Icebergs detaching from the edges of these ice shelves are like corners of a sheet of office paper getting cut with a pair of ocean-scissors,” Timothy Bartholomaus, glaciologist at the University of Idaho, explained to NBC News. “Right after the cut, when the iceberg detaches, the edges will often be perfectly square.”
What makes a piece tabular depends on contact with the ocean floor, according to National Snow and Ice Data Center research scientist Twila Moon. Contact with the ocean floor creates misshapen icebergs, while growlers from ice shelves have no such interference.
The Team Behind the Photo
The iceberg may have caught the internet’s eye, but the mission behind the image is worth more than a retweet. Operation IceBridge, a NASA research initiative, flies over the poles of the Earth annually with the goal to increase our understanding of how polar regions connect to the planet’s climate. They pair research aircraft and satellites to get a 3D look at Arctic and Antarctic ice. They’re the people doing the important work in the bitter cold to alert us about glacial ice hitting new lows or the rapid increase of sea-level rise — the work we should ultimately give our eyes and attention.