In 2017, astrophysicists at the European Space Agency spotted something disturbing among satellite data collected by the agency's Copernicus mission: A Las Vegas-sized iceberg was breaking off the Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica.
Over the last year, the ESA has tracked the iceberg's slow fragmentation — and in a new time-lapse video, the agency reveals that the iceberg has not only changed the nature of the Antarctic coast line, but it has also spawned new icebergs.
Also known as PIG, ESA's Copernicus tracked the changing cracks in the Pine Island Glacier using a series of 57 radar images that were captured by the mission’s two satellites from February, 2019 to February, 2020. The very last frame is an image that was taken just this week, on Monday, February 10.
The time-lapse video shows the large iceberg slowly separating from the glacier before it shatters into small, icy 'PIGlets' that drift out into the water.
The iceberg, which has an area of 300 square kilometers, broke free from the glacier at some point over the weekend, on February 8 or February 9. It is just the latest calving event for this rapidly shrinking glacier.
The Pine Island Glacier is located around 1,600 miles from the tip of South America. Although it is rather remote, PIG and its twin glacier, Thwaites, are one of the main pathways where ice enters the Amundsen Sea from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
The time-lapse video reveals just how quickly the iceberg slid off, before it was completely set loose from the glacier.
How the Pine Island Glacier affects sea levels:
“The Copernicus twin Sentinel-1 all-weather satellites have established a porthole through which the public can watch events like this unfold in remote regions around the world,” Mark Drinkwater, head of the Earth and Mission Sciences Division at ESA, said in a statement.
“What is unsettling is that the daily data stream reveals the dramatic pace at which climate is redefining the face of Antarctica.”
Together, the melting of PIG and Thwaites pose a real threat to rising sea levels. The two glaciers contain enough ice water to raise sea levels worldwide by a startling four feet, according to NASA.
Iceberg calving is when chunks of ice break off from glaciers and float out into the water, and it is representative of loss of ice mass in regions like Antartica.
Calving events of this magnitude used to take place every four to six years in this region, but more recently they have started occurring on a near annual basis, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory.
ESA satellites have been monitoring the two glaciers since the 1990’s. The agency has observed calving events in the years 1992, 1995, 2001, 2007, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017, and 2018.
During the 2018 event, an iceberg of approximately 226 square kilometers in area — a little smaller than this one — floated off from the Pine Island Glacier. And as it drifted off, new cracks started appearing in the ice. Now, we know the devastating results of those cracks.