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Iceberg twice as big as Manhattan breaks off from Greenland glacier

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    This Monday, July 16, 2012 satellite image provided by NASA shows calving, crescent-shaped crack at center, on the Petermann Glacier in northwestern Greenland. An iceberg twice the size of Manhattan tore off one of Greenland's largest glaciers. Scientists had been watching the 15-mile long crack in the floating ice shelf of the northerly Petermann Glacier for several years. On Monday NASA satellites showed it had broken completely, forming a 46 square mile iceberg. Petermann spawned an iceberg twice that size in 2010. (AP Photo/NASA)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    These 2010 and 2012 NASA images provided by the University of Delaware shows the formation of a crack in northwestern Greenland's Petermann Glacier. On Monday, July 16, 2012, an iceberg twice the size of Manhattan tore off one of Greenland's largest glaciers, indicated at center right. Scientists had been watching a 15-mile long crack in the floating ice shelf of the glacier for several years. On Monday NASA satellites showed it had broken completely, forming the 46 square mile iceberg. Petermann spawned an iceberg twice that size in 2010. (AP Photo/NASA, University of Delaware)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    This Monday, July 16, 2012 NASA image provided by the University of Delaware shows a crack in northwestern Greenland's Petermann Glacier. On Monday, July 16, 2012, an iceberg twice the size of Manhattan tore off one of Greenland's largest glaciers, indicated at center. Scientists had been watching a 15-mile long crack in the floating ice shelf of the glacier for several years. On Monday NASA satellites showed it had broken completely, forming the 46 square mile iceberg. Petermann spawned an iceberg twice that size in 2010. (AP Photo/NASA, University of Delaware)
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WASHINGTON >> An iceberg twice the size of Manhattan tore off one of Greenland’s largest glaciers, illustrating another dramatic change to the warming island.

For several years, scientists had been watching a long crack near the tip of the northerly Petermann Glacier. On Monday, NASA satellites showed it had broken completely, freeing an iceberg measuring 46 square miles.

A massive ice sheet covers about four-fifths of Greenland. Petermann Glacier is mostly on land, but a segment sticks out over water like a frozen tongue, and that’s where the break occurred.

The same glacier spawned an iceberg twice that size two years ago. Together, the breaks made a large change that’s got the attention of researchers. 

“It’s dramatic. It’s disturbing,” said University of Delaware professor Andreas Muenchow, who was one of the first researchers to notice the break. “We have data for 150 years and we see changes that we have not seen before.”

“It’s one of the manifestations that Greenland is changing very fast,” he said.

Researchers suspect global warming is to blame, but can’t prove it conclusively yet. Glaciers do calve icebergs naturally, but what’s happened in the last three years to Petermann is unprecedented, Muenchow and other scientists say.

“This is not part of natural variations anymore,” said NASA glaciologist Eric Rignot, who camped on Petermann 10 years ago.

Ohio State University ice scientist Ian Howat said there is still a chance it could be normal calving, like losing a fingernail that has grown too long, but any further loss would show it’s not natural: “We’re still in the phase of scratching our heads and figuring out how big a deal this really is.”

Many of Greenland’s southern glaciers have been melting at an unusually rapid pace. The Petermann break brings large ice loss much farther north than in the past, said Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo.

If it continues, and more of the Petermann is lost, the melting would push up sea levels, he said. The ice lost so far was already floating, so the breaks don’t add to global sea levels.

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