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Monster iceberg breaks off Antarctica

One of the largest icebergs on record separates from the Antarctic Peninsula, and our eyes in space got a good look at the action.

The rift shows up on the right side of this Copernicus Sentinel-1 image.

Copernicus Sentinel data processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

It's more than twice the size of Luxembourg and contains as much water as all of Lake Ontario. An iceberg just calved from the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica, and it's a doozy. 

The massive block of ice covers 2,300 square miles (6,000 square kilometers). For years, scientists have been monitoring the growing crack. Both the European Space Agency's Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellite and NASA's Suomi NPP satellite captured images when the iceberg finally broke away Wednesday.   

Larsen C is part of a series of floating ice shelves running along the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. These shelves act as buttresses between glaciers and ice streams behind them and the ocean to the other side. "If large portions of an ice shelf are removed by calving, the inflow of glaciers can speed up and contribute to sea-level rise. About 10 percent of the Larsen C shelf has now gone," European Space Agency said in a statement. 

"This calving is dramatic but normal in the life cycle of an ice shelf," said the British Antarctic Survey. The neighboring Larsen B ice shelf fell apart in 2002 after it calved a major iceberg in 1995. It will be interesting to see if Larsen C follows suit.

Glaciologist Martin O'Leary with Project MIDAS, a research group focused on studying the climate's impact on Larsen C, agreed that this is a natural event and said researchers aren't aware of any link to human-induced climate change. However, O'Leary notes, "This is the furthest back that the ice front has been in recorded history. We're going to be watching very carefully for signs that the rest of the shelf is becoming unstable."

The iceberg is likely to hang around the rest of the ice shelf for some time, but it could potentially break up and travel into warmer waters and shipping lanes. Researchers and satellites will be keeping a close eye on both the chunk of ice and the remaining shelf.

This Suomi NPP satellite image is labeled to show the ice shelf, new iceberg and sea ice.

NASA

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