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Gentle Giant – The Petermann Ice Island

Petermann Ice Island 2010

Calving of the Petermann Ice Island in August 2010. Credit: Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, NASA Earth Observatory earthobservatory.nasa.gov

Where were you when the Petermann Ice Island calved?

Ok, so maybe the date of August 5, 2010 doesn’t exactly stick in anyone’s memory, but it totally should. That’s the day when an enormous chunk of the Petermann Glacier, on the north-west coast of Greenland, crashed into the sea, creating the biggest piece of floating ice the Arctic had seen in 60 years. Today, the battered remains of this frozen giant are still floating south, and are now within a few hundred kilometres of Newfoundland.

It’s hard to give a sense of the vastness of this thing, but I’ll try: a very large iceberg – like the one that sunk the Titanic in 1912 – is a couple of hundred metres long, giving a surface area of less than half a square kilometre. When it was born, the Petermann Ice Island was over 280 square kilometres. That’s 500 times the size of a regular iceberg, or if you prefer, more than four times the size of Bermuda.

Luckily, our intrepid scientists have been on top of this situation since day one. The Canadian Ice Service (CIS), an arm of Environment Canada, is dedicated entirely to predicting and mitigating the dangers posed to ships by giant pieces of ice like this one. They’ve been tracking PII (as it’s known) using satellite images and radio-beacons dropped out of planes, (although the latter are no longer reporting and presumed lost. Their results are written up in this nifty ice diary on their website.

To make a long story short, aver the past 11 months, the island has splintered into numerous pieces, most of which have grounded themselves harmlessly on the thinly populated coast of Labrador. However, one gigantic piece – dubbed PII-A – has remained mobile, and that’s the one you’re hearing about in the mainstream media. Although it’s a shadow of its former self, it’s still plenty big; if it melted, the water would be enough to supply the needs of every Canadian for over a year.

PII-A off the coast of Newfoundland

PII-A off the coast of Newfoundland. Credit: Jeff Schmaltz, NASA Earch observatory, earthobservatory.nasa.gov

So will this island spell disaster for Newfoundland? My guess is, no. True, at over 3 billion tonnes, a collision with PII-A could cause serious damage to ships and oil platforms, but this seems unlikely to happen. Unlike the Titanic, modern ships have sophisticated iceberg detection systems, and running directly into something this big would require a fair bit of foolhardiness. As for the oil platforms, they tend to be built in shallower water; PII-A would likely run aground before it hit them. Of course, PII-A could still break up into smaller pieces, shooting off with surprising speed in unpredictable directions. But as long as everyone exercises caution, this particular phenomenon should remain a gentle giant.

If anything, PII-A could be a boon to tourism. Iceberg watching is quite popular these days, and no wonder: seals and other wildlife are known to gambol on the drifting ice, and as it melts, spectacular waterfalls can often be seen. Videos of the island and its progeny are already making their way onto the Interweb; so far I’ve found this one, which features a smaller chunk of PII-A.

One last point; while there’s no doubt that ice conditions in the Arctic are changing, ice islands of comparable size have been spawned in the past as well. Trying to take this single ice island on its own as evidence of climate change is a bit like assuming that a single robbery is evidence of a rise in crime rate. There’s just not enough data. We should watch for more like it in the future, but in the meantime, we should just enjoy one of nature’s rare spectacles for what it is.

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