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Antarctica just went through a major breakup...with one of its ice glaciers

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Antarctica just went through a major breakup...with one of its ice glaciers.

The fastest melting glacier in Western Antarctica, Pine Island Glacier, lost a chunk of ice nearly four times the size of Manhattan in late September. That has scientists worried--not necessarily because of the iceberg's size, but because of how the glacier melted.

Ian Howat, glaciologist at the Ohio State University, has extensively studied the dynamics of Pine Island Glacier. Most recently, in 2016, he and his colleagues published a paper describing how recent calving events at Pine Island Glacier differ from others.

"Our first major conclusion was that the ice shelf is showing signs of rifting from the interior outward, which is the opposite of how things typically act with glaciers," he told Circa.

He went on to explain that glaciers tend to break at the edges, not from the interior of the ice shelf.

"What we've seen starting in the past few years, though, at Pine Island Glacier are cracks forming in the interior of the ice shelf and propagating outward," he added. "The only way that can happen is if we're increasing the rate of melting in the interior of the ice shelf, so from beneath it, where the ocean is interacting with the ice, and those pits in the bottom of the ice shelf are making their way to the surface and causing cracks, which then propagate outward."

Where should you go to escape the cold?

Long story short, Howat said it's a pretty big deal because it suggests that warmer ocean temperatures are melting the interior of the ice shelf.

"It gives us a new mechanism by which these ice shelves may fall apart more quickly in the future," he continued.

According to scientists, the September 2017 incident was the second crack to occur in two years. Howat said that while ice calving is normal -- it prevents Antarctica from growing and covering more territory--the rapid fire events seen lately are anything but a natural occurrence.

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Residents in the continental U.S. may have difficulties in understanding the glacier's breadth of impact. After all, Western Antarctica is thousands of miles away from civilization, but Howat said people are able to better understand the urgency of the issue if they think about Pine Island Glacier as water, not ice.

"I think it adds a little more urgency if you think of it as water, the potential sea level rise down at the pole. The dams that hold this water back are the ice shelves of glaciers. Every time you see a crack, a rift form, an ice shelf break apart, and that calving causes it to retreat farther than it's ever been, what you're literally seeing is a crack in the dam holding that water back. I'm sure if you were living in a valley somewhere beneath a reservoir, and the dam was cracking, you'd probably be concerned about it."
Ian Howat

Pine Island Glacier's recent loss of ice comes a few months after a massive calving took place off the Larsen-C ice shelf, reducing its total area by nearly 10 percent, according to the journal Nature Climate Change. The resulting iceberg may have weighed in at more than one trillion tons, but, according to Howat, that particular calving event didn't appear to change the dynamics of the area's stability. That's where the Larsen C and Pine Island differ.

See glaciers melt before your eyes

The Ohio State University professor said that the most recent break at Pine Island Glacier suggests that future calving events could impact the entire ice shelf.

"If we lose the ice, the glaciers will speed up, we'll dump more ice into the ocean, and raise sea level rise."

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