By Anthony Ricigliano:
The Earth has a brand new island in the form of a chunk of ice four times the size of Manhattan after it broke off from the Petermann Glacier in Greenland. The ice island is slowly drifting across the Arctic Ocean with the potential to make its way toward oil platforms and busy shipping lanes off of Newfoundland.
The ice island is approximately one hundred square miles in size and is the largest northern hemisphere ice island since 1962. "It's so big that you can't prevent it from drifting. You can't stop it," said Jon-Ove Methlie Hagen, a glaciologist at the University of Oslo. The challenge now is to track the likely trajectory of the island to determine the potential danger which could be wreaked in the shipping lanes and Canada's offshore platforms in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland.
The island is drifting toward the Nares Strait which could feed the island into southbound ocean currents. These currents would carry the island down Canada’s east coast and directly into the busy shipping lanes and oil drilling operations unless the usual winter freeze arrives on time and locks down the Strait. If it gets into the Nares Strait earlier than expected or the winter freeze is late, the floating ice shelf would become problematic.
Besides the obvious problems presented to ships, another complex problem is the threat to the offshore oil platforms in its path. Smaller icebergs can be redirected using water cannons or by towing but this ice shelf is so big that changing its direction would be difficult, if not impossible. If the platforms are threatened, they will probably have to shut down operations and be moved. The logistics of this type of action take time, money, and are very complicated, especially when the rigs are fixed to the ocean floor. The complexities would increase considerably if multiple rigs are threatened at the same time.
At its current size, the island contains the equivalent of the fresh water flowing through the Hudson River for two years. While it's likely to break into smaller icebergs as it bumps into other icebergs and jagged islands, the bergs will still be huge in comparison to what normally floats out of the Nares Strait. The bergs would also be affected by wind, waves and higher temperatures as they head south.
The ice sheet is already a topic in the global warming discussion and should remain so during its journey. At this point, however, experts are reluctant to attribute the giant ice island to climate change due to all the variables that affect glaciers in the area. The ongoing retreat of Greenland's glaciers has accelerated in recent years, and is one of the least understood pieces of the climate puzzle.
Despite the variables beyond those directly tied to global warming, the event coincides with worrisome signs of warming in the Arctic. Over the last forty years, Arctic temperatures have risen by 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit and Arctic sea ice measured in June was at its lowest level for the month since records started being kept in 1979.
Whether it’s a result of global warming or other factors, this ice island is likely to be the center of attention for environmentalists as well as the area’s shipping and oil industries.