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article imageNASA's stunning photo shows widening rift in Antarctic ice shelf

By Karen Graham     Dec 16, 2016 in Environment
Photos released on Friday from NASA's Operation Icebridge show with a stunning clarity that the huge rift in the Larsen C ice shelf is getting closer to causing a section of ice the size of Delaware to break off.
Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), along with other research groups, have been monitoring the massive crack in Antarctica's Larsen C ice shelf in the northwestern part of the Weddell Sea for some time.
In August 2016, Digital Journal reported that the BAS, as part of the MIDAS Project, found the ever-widening crack in Larsen C was threatening to carve out an iceberg the size of Delaware and in turn create further instability in a large section of the ice, about the size of Scotland.
View of the Riiser-Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica.
View of the Riiser-Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica.
By Ben Holt – National Aeronautics and Space Administration, via Wikimedia Commons
But the new NASA images, taken by researchers on November 10 are astonishing. The photos show the crack is getting wider, longer and much deeper. The last time scientists were able to clearly see the rift was in March 2016.
"The growth of this rift likely indicates that the portion of the ice shelf downstream of the rift is no longer holding back any grounded ice," said Joe MacGregor, IceBridge deputy project scientist and glaciologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Project Midas
In a press release, NASA said: "The crack completely cuts through the Ice Shelf but it does not go all the way across it – once it does, it will produce an iceberg roughly the size of the state of Delaware."
The scientists measured and determined the fracture was about 70 miles long, more than 300 feet wide and about a third of a mile deep. Just last week, it was reported that the British Antarctic Survey's Halley VI research station was preparing to move its station because a giant chasm in the Brunt ice shelf in East Antarctica is threatening to break off.
NASA s Operation Icebridge flight prepares to fly over Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica.
NASA's Operation Icebridge flight prepares to fly over Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Antarctica's ice shelves
Ice shelves ride on the water and are fed by glaciers and ice streams, reports Mashable. Cracks and calving are a normal process, and are quite often part of the scenic show tourists are able to witness in Alaskan cruises. Remember that when an iceberg is formed from the calving process, no water is added to the ocean because it's already afloat on the water.
The NASA Operation Icebridge aircraft comes with a lot of technology  including lasers  radars  digi...
The NASA Operation Icebridge aircraft comes with a lot of technology, including lasers, radars, digital imaging, and infrared sensors.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
However, an ice shelf, like the Larsen C or Brunt ice shelf, holds back land ice, acting as a barrier. So when an ice shelf breaks off, the glacier behind it is then allowed to flow directly into the sea, and this can increase the sea level. We have long-term satellite imagery and data that shows glaciers are rapidly retreating. In West Antarctica, losing 23 feet in altitude every year.
As these glaciers slip into the seas, they are increasing ocean levels at the rate of about a tenth-of-an-inch annually. It doesn't sound like very much, does it? But try looking at the figure in the long-term and then it has significance. "It's generally accepted that it's no longer a question of whether the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will melt, it's a question of when," said study leader Ian Howat, associate professor of Earth Sciences at Ohio State.
Snapshot of the rift in the Larsen C on Nov. 10  2016. (NASA/John Sonntag)
Snapshot of the rift in the Larsen C on Nov. 10, 2016. (NASA/John Sonntag)
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA also reports that November, Antarctic air temperatures were 3.6 - 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal, while Antarctic sea ice extent was a staggering 699,000 square miles below the 1981 to 2010 average. "Antarctic sea ice really went down the rabbit hole this time," said Ted Scambos, the lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
Punta Arenas, Chile was the base for NASA's Operation Icebridge flights this year. The agency has plans to fly from McMurdo Station in Antarctica next year, but any future missions are now in doubt because President-elect Trump has vowed to eliminate any climate research done by NASA, a move that would leave Antarctica and the rest of the Earth in the "Dark Ages," according to EcoWatch.
More about larsen C, NASA, east antarctic, British Antarctic Survey, operation icebridge
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