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B-31 and the Pine Island Glacier

Posted On: December 31, 2013 - By: Curtis Seaman

Nope. This post is not about a warplane, an alcoholic beverage or a “New Wave” band from the 1970s. (Those are all B-52s.) And I’m not talking about a county road in Michigan or a New York City bus line. B-31 is the rather bland name given to the massive iceberg that just broke off from the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica. (Of course, if you tried to name every chunk of ice floating around Antarctica, how long would it take you to run out of names and just switch to random letters and numbers?)

This particular chunk of ice is special, however, as it has been described as the size of a city. Now, as a scientist, I have to say that the size of a city is a terrible unit of measurement. How big a city are we talking about? I suspect people who live in one of the ten largest cities in the world would laugh at what the people of Wyoming call a “city”. And are we talking the size of the greater metropolitan area or just what is within the city limits?

The article that describes B-31 as the size of city mentioned that it was roughly the size of Singapore, or twice the size of Atlanta. Those seem like odd choices for comparison. How many of you have a good idea of what the land area is of Singapore? And twice the size of Atlanta? They could have used New York City, which has just over twice the land area of Atlanta and people are probably more familiar with New York City. In any case, all of these size estimates have errors.

The original estimate came from this NASA MODIS image and associated caption, which put the size of B-31 as 35 km x 20 km. Now, that’s 700 km2 assuming the iceberg is a perfect rectangle, which you can see in the image that it isn’t. Singapore has a land area of 714 km2, while New York City is 768 km2 and Atlanta is 341 km2 (these are “within the city limits” numbers, not the size of the greater metropolitan area). Since the iceberg is actually smaller than the 35 km x 20 km rectangle based on the widest and longest dimensions of the iceberg, maybe “twice the size of Atlanta” is the most accurate estimate.

Anyway, MODIS is not the only satellite instrument out there capable of viewing B-31. Landsat-8 saw it in much higher resolution in another post from NASA. And, of course this entire blog is about what VIIRS can see. Now, VIIRS doesn’t have the resolution of Landsat or the highest-resolution channels on MODIS, but VIIRS has the Day/Night Band, allowing us to see the iceberg both day and night (at visible wavelengths).

To show why that is important, take a look at the infrared image (M-15, 10.7 µm) below. Images in the “infrared window” (the N-band window, according to this site) used to be the only way to detect surface features and clouds at night. At these wavelengths, the amount of radiation detected by the satellite is a function of the temperature of the objects the instrument is looking at. As always, to see the high resolution version of the image, click on it, then on the “1660×1706” link below the banner.

VIIRS IR image (M-15) taken 23:34 UTC 7 November 2013

VIIRS IR image (M-15) taken 23:34 UTC 7 November 2013

See that slightly darker gray area near the center of the image? That’s open water in Pine Island Bay, which is only slightly warmer than the ice and low clouds surrounding it. Otherwise, there isn’t much detail in this picture. What really stands out are the cold, high clouds that are highlighted by the color scale. Contrast this with a visible wavelength image from the same time (M-5, 0.67 µm):

VIIRS visible (M-5) image, taken 23:34 UTC 7 November 2013

VIIRS visible (M-5) image, taken 23:34 UTC 7 November 2013

The open water in Pine Island Bay shows up clear as day because, well, it is daytime and the ice and snow reflect a lot more sunlight back to the satellite than the open water does. Icebergs can easily be distinguished from the low clouds now. You can even see through some of the low clouds to identify individual icebergs that are not visible in the infrared image. The difference in reflectivity between the ice and water at visible wavelengths is a lot greater than the difference in brightness temperature in the 10-12 µm infrared wavelengths, and that contrast is what makes things more easily visible.

Now, it is summer down there and at these latitudes, the sun is up for most of the day (actually, all day for everywhere in this scene on the Summer Solstice, which occurred on 21 December 2013), so you could say that using the VIIRS Day/Night Band to look at this stuff is unnecessary. But, since VIIRS is on a polar-orbiting satellite, it views the poles a lot more frequently than where you or I live: every 101 minutes on average, instead of every 12 hours in the low and mid-latitudes. That means it may occasionally capture a nighttime image here or there during the short nights and will frequently capture images where the day/night terminator crosses through the scene and we still want to be able to see what’s going on then. And you need the Day/Night Band to do that.

For the first time on this blog, however, we’re not going to show the Day/Night Band data exactly. We’re going to show the Near Constant Contrast imagery product, which is produced from the Day/Night Band. You can read up more on the Near Constant Contrast product and how it’s related to the Day/Night Band here. At this point, we’ll refer to NCC and DNB rather than having to type out Near Constant Contrast and Day/Night Band all the time.

Here’s a NCC image from 7 November 2013 at 20:15 UTC where the Pine Island Glacier has been identified. B-31 is still attached to the glacier – it’s sticking out into the bay and, if you look at the high resolution version of the image, you may be able to see the crack where it has started to calve.

VIIRS Near Constant Contrast image from 20:15 UTC 7 November 2013

VIIRS Near Constant Contrast image from 20:15 UTC 7 November 2013. The Pine Island Glacier is identified.

Keep your eye on that spot as you watch this zoomed-in animation of NCC images starting from the above image to 03:06 UTC 18 November:

Animation of VIIRS NCC images of the Pine Island Glacier from 7-18 November 2013

Animation of VIIRS NCC images of the Pine Island Glacier from 7-18 November 2013

I should say that the above animation does not include images from every orbit. I’ve subjectively removed images that were too cloudy to see anything as well as images where the VIIRS swath didn’t cover enough of the scene. This left 25 images over the 11 day period. Even so, VIIRS captured the moment of B-31 breaking free quite well.

Imagine the sound that this 600+ km2 chunk of ice made as it broke free. I bet it sounded something like this glacier calving event in Greenland:


One of the articles linked to above mentioned the importance of tracking such a large iceberg, because it could impact ships in the area. (Just this week a ship got stranded in ice off the coast of Antarctica.) So, I decided to see if VIIRS could track it. The results are in the MP4 video clip linked to below. You may need an appropriate browser plug-in or add-on (or whatever your browser calls it) to be able to view the video.

Animation of VIIRS NCC images from 7 November – 26 December 2013 (.mp4 file)

That’s 50 days of relatively cloud-free VIIRS NCC images (7 November – 26 December 2013), compressed down to 29 seconds. Go ahead, watch the video more than once. Each viewing uncovers additional details. Notice how B-31 doesn’t move much after 10 December. Notice how ice blocks the entrance to Pine Island Bay at the beginning of the loop, then clears out by the end of the loop. Notice all the icebergs near the shore that are pushed or pulled or blown out to sea from about 20 December through the end of the loop. Notice that B-31 isn’t even the biggest chunk of ice out there. Notice the large ice sheet on the west side of Pine Island Bay that breaks up right at the end of the loop. In fact, here’s another zoomed-in animated GIF to make sure you notice it:

Animation of VIIRS NCC images from 20-26 December 2013

Animation of VIIRS NCC images from 20-26 December 2013

That area of ice is much larger than B-31! (Dare I say, as large as the state of Rhode Island? Probably not, because then you’ll just think of how Rhode Island is the smallest US state, so it can’t be very impressive. It’s also not very accurate since that estimate is based on eye-balling it and thinking it looks like it could be four times the size of B-31.)

Of course, we are heading towards the middle of summer in the Antarctic when the ice typically reaches its minimum extent. So the ice breaking up isn’t unusual. Plus, large calving events occur on the Pine Island Glacier every few years. But, the B-31 event is noteworthy because Pine Island Glacier holds about 5% of the total freshwater contained on Antarctica.  It’s also the site of an ongoing field experiment where researchers are investigating glacier-ocean interactions. You can read up on what it’s like to install instruments on a glacier while living in a tent on the coldest continent 1000 miles from any other human settlement in this article. (That article doesn’t say if any instruments are still stuck in B-31 and floating out to sea, though.) And, if you’re curious, Pine Island Glacier has its own Twitter account. So far, the conclusions are that Pine Island Glacier is thinning, receding and speeding up. Large calving events are just one piece of the puzzle, but an important piece to understand since they contribute to sea level rise.

The calving process of B-31 was first noticed by NASA researchers noticing a crack forming in Pine Island Glacier while flying over the area in October 2011 – before VIIRS was even launched. But, VIIRS was there to capture the end result of that crack two years later!


UPDATE (22 April 2014): B-31 has continued to drift towards the open ocean. Researchers at NASA have been monitoring the movement of the massive iceberg since it first calved, and have put together their own video here, which tracks B-31 from the time of my video above into mid-March 2014.