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Massive Iceberg Breaks Free in Antarctica: How Worried Should We Be?

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The iceberg, which is about the size of Delaware, is an important reminder that ice on Earth is changing–and not just in Antarctica, says Dr. Twila Moon, a glacial expert with the National Snow and Ice Data Center

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Sharmini Peries: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Satellite monitoring earth scientists have just confirmed that an iceberg the size of Delaware state just broke away from the Antarctica. The 5,800 square kilometer iceberg, weighing one trillion tons, calved away from the Larsen Sea ice shelf. This is among the tenth largest such breakaway in recorded history. Should we be concerned and worried? Is this due to climate change, and when this iceberg gets to warmer waters and melts, to what degree might it raise sea levels? Well, let’s talk to a scientist that studies this. Joining us from Big Sky, Montana is Dr. Twila Moon. She is a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado. She specializes in understanding current changes in Earth’s ice, including Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets. Dr. Moon, welcome.

Dr. Twila Moon: Thank you.

Sharmini Peries: So Dr. Moon, how significant is this calving? Has it fundamentally changed the Antarctic?

Dr. Twila Moon: This is certainly a large iceberg that we have seen calved, and that’s exciting in itself, just as far as the magnitude of ice that’s lost from the ice shelf. But Antarctica is larger than the US and Mexico put together, so relative to the Antarctic ice sheet, this is not so big. What is important, though, is that this is showing us and reminding us that ice on Earth is changing. Not just in Antarctica, but also Greenland, the Himalaya, Patagonia, etc.

Sharmini Peries: Now, some scientists are worried that this break off could trigger other glaciers to slide. Since the break off amounts to, as you say it might be small, but from what I have read that it’s 12% of the ice shelf, so could this accelerate the rate at which icebergs might slide?

Dr. Twila Moon: Yeah, that’s something that may happen over the next several years or longer. There’s still a significant amount of ice shelf. This is thick, floating ice, and that thick, floating ice is holding back ice that’s on land. If we lose more and more of that floating ice, then we can see acceleration of ice from land, and that is going to raise sea levels.

Sharmini Peries: Okay, so the next question is related to the sea level rise. Now as I said in the intro, as this iceberg that broke away slide into warmer waters, it’s going to melt, and it will certainly raise some sea levels. Are you concerned about that?

Dr. Twila Moon: Right. From this iceberg, we won’t see sea level rise. This iceberg was already floating in the ocean, so it had already displaced ocean water. But, if we see decreased stability in the ice shelf behind it, an eventual loss of that ice shelf, then subsequent changes on land ice will raise sea levels. So sea level rise is not an immediate impact of this iceberg.

Sharmini Peries: Okay. The other concern most people have is, can we relate this iceberg break to climate change? If not directly, is it a pattern that’s occurring that scientists are concerned about?

Dr. Twila Moon: Yes. I would say this is definitely part of the larger pattern we’re seeing in ice loss. Likely, ocean warming that’s happened in this region of Antarctica, and perhaps some atmospheric warming, has made it easier for this iceberg to break off. But it’s this incident that is indicative of the kinds of ice we see losing are all around the globe. We’re losing ice in other places in Antarctica, in Greenland, in mountain glaciers around the world, and it’s that overall picture of ice loss around the Earth that we should certainly be concerned with.

Sharmini Peries: All right. Dr. Moon, as you say, this is indicative of what might come. We have to put it in context.

Dr. Twila Moon: Right.

Sharmini Peries: But scientists talk about the albedo effect, the measure of the reflectivity of its surface. Tell us more about the albedo effect, and how it could contribute to how the Antarctic is, or will become.

Dr. Twila Moon: Yeah. The albedo effect is something that we especially worry about across the Arctic Ocean in the north, with the development and loss of sea ice. As we lose sea ice, we’re having a large influence on how much we’re warming the Earth’s surface with that darker ocean. We also see darkening happening on the Greenland ice sheet. In Antarctica, we have not seen significant changes in albedo yet, but based on what we’re seeing in ice elsewhere around the globe, we can certainly expect those changes to happen over the coming decades and centuries.

Sharmini Peries: Dr. Moon, I’m actually quite excited to hear that this isn’t as bad as everyone thought, but you are putting it in context, and this is a sign of things that might come about. But one concern that we all have is how do we actually stop this from getting any worse, from sea ice melting, to glaciers breaking away. How can it be prevented?

Dr. Twila Moon: Yeah. I think that’s so important that these events on the far distant pole from us are actually something that we can have an influence on here. So every action that we take as individuals, communities, countries, to reduce changes in warming ocean, warming atmosphere by reducing our footprint, is a positive action as far as keeping ice around on Earth, and that’s a benefit to everyone.

Sharmini Peries: All right, Dr. Moon, I thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Twila Moon: Thank you.

Sharmini Peries: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.