A NASA scientist and her colleagues were able to observe for the first time the power of an earthquake and tsunami to break off large icebergs a hemisphere away.
Kelly Brunt, a cryosphere specialist at Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., and colleagues were able to link the calving of icebergs from the Sulzberger Ice Shelf in Antarctica following the Tohoku Tsunami, which originated with an earthquake off the coast of Japan in March 2011. The finding, detailed in a paper published online today in the Journal of Glaciology, marks the first direct observation of such a connection between tsunamis and icebergs.
The birth of an iceberg can come about in any number of ways. Often, scientists will see the towering, frozen monoliths break into the polar seas and work backwards to figure out the cause.So when the Tohoku Tsunami was triggered in the Pacific Ocean on March 11 this spring, Brunt and colleagues immediately looked south. All the way south. Using multiple satellite images, Brunt, Emile Okal at Northwestern University and Douglas MacAyeal at University of Chicago were able to observe new icebergs floating off to sea shortly after the sea swell of the tsunami reached Antarctica.
To put the dynamics of this event in perspective: An earthquake off the coast of Japan caused massive waves to explode out from its epicenter. Swells of water swarmed toward an ice shelf in Antarctica, 8,000 miles (13,600 km) away, and about 18 hours after the earthquake occurred, those waves broke off several chunks of ice that together equaled about two times the surface area of Manhattan. According to historical records, this particular piece of ice hadn't budged in at least 46 years before the tsunami came along.