Glaciers hold about three percent of Earth’s water, which may not sound like a lot. However, it’s more than enough to cause widespread damage if it were all to melt. That’s become an increasingly real possibility as researchers continue to track the effects of climate change. Scientists recently detected a new crack forming in one of the world’s largest glaciers, the Petermann Glacier in Greenland. Now, NASA has captured the first aerial images of the fissure, and the news isn’t good.
The new images come from NASA’s IceBridge operation, which has been flying over northwest Greenland for the last several days. Before this, all researchers had to go on was satellite data that was used to identify the formation of the new crack. The scale was not entirely clear until now. Operation IceBridge is an ongoing project to monitor the state of polar ice in Greenland and Antarctica. It has also recently captured images of the Heilprin and Upernavik glaciers.
According to NASA, the fissure has formed near the center of the glacier’s floating ice shelf. It was several kilometers long when discovered, and has increased in size since then. It’s not too distant from another rift in the ice that researchers have been tracking. That one began more typically at the edge and has been extending inward toward the middle of the sheet. After studying the data, Delft University’s Stef Lhermitte suggests the odd location might have something to do with the ocean currents underneath it.
It’s possible the two cracks will meet in the not too distant future, and that could cause a large portion of the glacier to break away and fall into the ocean. However, NASA also notes that a feature of the glacier known as the “medial flow line” could prevent the new crack from advancing toward the older one. Hopefully that will slow the breakup of the sheet.
Is this recent internal crack in #Petermann glacier the prelude of a new @Petermann_ice island? 1/5 pic.twitter.com/V8qKF1MwmC
— Stef Lhermitte (@StefLhermitte) April 12, 2017
The Petermann Glacier has been a subject of intense study over the last decade as it developed fissures that eventually led to large sections breaking off. In 2010, a 100-square-mile piece broke off and floated away. Another smaller 50-60 square mile segment broke away two years later. Researchers estimate that were the glacier to suffer another loss as a result of this new fissure, it would be between 50 and 70 square miles in size.
The new data from Operation IceBridge will allow researchers to establish a baseline for this fissure. Scientists will monitor as it (probably) spreads across the ice sheet. Unfortunately, there’s nothing that can be done to stop it. The best we can hope to do is understand it.