A massive ice island has formed in northern Greenland – it had been part of the Petermann Glacier, but last week it broke free. 92 square miles of ice – four times the size of Manhattan – now floating in the Arctic Sea. It could threaten shipping lanes, oil rigs, and float into the area where the Titanic hit an iceberg in 1912 and sank.
Already, the giant has assumed biblical proportions, becoming part of the slate of environmental evidence of global warming – as the planet heats up, with oil spills, raging fires, devastating heat, and deadly flooding scoring the season as a record-breaker. July 2010, for example, is the hottest July on record. Nothing else that has happened this summer symbolizes climate change as much as the creation of this new Arctic Sea island – the largest ice island in over half a century.
While Greenland’s glaciers break off thousands of icebergs into Arctic waters every year, scientists say this ice island is the biggest in the northern hemisphere since 1962. But you only have to look at satellite pictures of Greenland to see that more of it is melting away faster than at any other time in recorded history.
The ice island has enough fresh water to supply the entire United States for four months. The nearly 100-square mile breakaway island came off Greenland’s vast ice sheet, which itself contains enough freshwater that if it melted, global sea levels would rise by a devastating twenty feet. The island cannot escape the symbolism surrounding it nor the politics that accompanies the debate. U.S. Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts offered the ice island as a home for climate change skeptics.
The new island’s trajectory is being projected, as it is moving toward the Nares Strait separating Greenland’s northwestern coast and Canada’s Ellsemere Island. Once the ice giant reaches the strait before the winter freeze — due to start next month — ocean currents would pick it up and carry it south, knocking the east coast of Canada until it reached waters off Newfoundland busy with oil activities and shipping – where it would become very dangerous.
This journey is estimated to take one to two years, and it would break up into smaller chucks in the melting process, but these chucks would still be huge, large enough to threaten Canada’s offshore platforms in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland.
Jon-Ove Methlie Hagen, a glaciologist at the University of Oslo, told the media:
“It’s so big that you can’t prevent it from drifting. You can’t stop it.”
Since 1970, temperatures have risen more than 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit in much of the Arctic — much faster than the global average. In June the Arctic sea ice cover was at the lowest level for that month since records began in 1979, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The retreat of Greenland’s glaciers, which has accelerated in recent years, is one of the least understood pieces of the climate puzzle.
“Global warming” Term First Used 35 Years Ago
Ironically, the ice shelf broke off its Greenland mooring nearly to the day, that 35 years ago on August 8, a then-obscure geochemist at Columbia University named Wallace Broecker published a journal article that, for the first time, used the term “global warming.” The article in question, in the journal Science, passed with barely a mention. It was called “Are We On the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” Broecker was arguing that the Earth was about to get a whole lot hotter.