It’s enough to make you think aliens inhabit the Seventh Continent. But no, it’s just our freak show planet doing its thing. And people sure seem to have to enjoyed the latest spectacle, including the scientist who captured the viral images of the sheet cake-shaped floating hunk of ice.
“Everyone from cousin-in-laws to parents to a friend over in Europe has [messaged that they’ve] seen it,” Jeremy Harbeck, the NASA scientist who snapped the images, told Gizmodo.
Harbeck is a senior scientist with NASA’s Operation IceBridge, a mission that flies instrument-laden planes to document the state of the ice at both poles. He told Gizmodo he’s been on 62 IceBridge flights — most of them over the Arctic’s sea ice — so “I like to think I’ve seen a lot.”
But the tabular iceberg was a first for him, especially since most of his work is in the Arctic. There, you’ll find lots of sea ice but precious few icebergs, which tend to break off floating glaciers and ice shelves that are in shorter supply in the high Arctic than they are in Antarctica.
On the fateful day last week that he captured the tabular iceberg, he found himself looking out the window of the DC-8 that NASA flies over the Antarctic after a morning looking at inland valleys of the Antarctic peninsula. The plane had taken a turn to where the Larsen C ice shelf meets the sea, and Harbeck was hoping to catch a glimpse of the Delaware-sized ‘berg that fractured off shelf last July.
Harbeck said the shelf is also known for flexing in a way that calves icebergs with sharp angles and faces, but the one he captured is a particularly striking example. Even if he didn’t know it was destined for viral fame, he knew it was worth snapping a few photos.
“[It] was not a big one, not a small one, but the fact that it had a square end caught my eye,” he said. “It was pretty photogenic.”
The pictures are the public facing part of a much bigger mission to understand what’s happening to the planet’s overheating ice. Harbeck operates a camera onboard the plane that helps calibrate highly sensitive laser mapping equipment called lidar that can precisely measure elevation changes in ice. That data is, in turn, being used to ground-truth and conduct quality control of the data coming back from NASA’s recently-launched ICESat-2 satellite .
The satellite provides a 500km high view of ice at both poles and will help monitor the area and thickness of ice. The measurements are crucial for improving climate models and understanding how fast seas could rise as climate change melts ice on the land. It’s a big deal, and scientists are as hype about Harbeck’s work and the satellites as the internet has been about the freakberg.