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Arthur Semyonov
Arthur Semyonov


Ice calving, also known as glacier calving or iceberg calving, is the breaking of ice chunks from the edge of a glacier.[1] It is a form of ice ablation or ice disruption. It is the sudden release and breaking away of a mass of ice from a glacier, iceberg, ice front, ice shelf, or crevasse. The ice that breaks away can be classified as an iceberg, but may also be a growler, bergy bit, or a crevasse wall breakaway.[2]


Many glaciers terminate at oceans or freshwater lakes which results naturally[5] with the calving of large numbers of icebergs. Calving of Greenland's glaciers produce 12,000 to 15,000 icebergs each year alone.[6]

Calving of ice shelves is often preceded by a rift.[7] An ice shelf in steady state calves at roughly the same rate as the influx of new ice,[8][9] and calving events may occur on subannual to decadal timescales to maintain an overall average mean position of the ice shelf front. When calving rates exceed the influx of new ice, ice front retreat occurs, and ice shelves may grow smaller and weaker.[10]

It is useful to classify causes of calving into first, second, and third order processes.[11] First order processes are responsible for the overall rate of calving at the glacier scale. The first order cause of calving is longitudinal stretching, which controls the formation of crevasses. When crevasses penetrate the full thickness of the ice, calving will occur.[12] Longitudinal stretching is controlled by friction at the base and edges of the glacier, glacier geometry and water pressure at the bed. These factors, therefore, exert the primary control on calving rate.

Second and third order calving processes can be considered to be superimposed on the first order process above, and control the occurrence of individual calving events, rather than the overall rate. Melting at the waterline is an important second order calving process as it undercuts the subaerial ice, leading to collapse. Other second order processes include tidal and seismic events, buoyant forces and melt water wedging.

When calving occurs due to waterline melting, only the subaerial part of the glacier will calve, leaving a submerged 'foot'. Thus, a third order process is defined, whereby upward buoyant forces cause this ice foot to break off and emerge at the surface. This process is extremely dangerous, as it has been known to occur, without warning, up to 300m from the glacier terminus.[13]

Though many factors that contribute to calving have been identified, a reliable predictive mathematical formula is still under development. Data is currently being assembled from ice shelves in Antarctica and Greenland to help establish a 'calving law'. Variables used in models include properties of the ice such as thickness, density, temperature, c-axis fabric, and impurity loading. A property known as 'ice front normal spreading stress' may be of key importance, despite it not normally being measured.[citation needed]

There are currently several concepts upon which to base a predictive law. One theory states that the calving rate is primarily a function of the ratio of tensile stress to vertical compressive stress, i.e., the calving rate is a function of the ratio of the largest to smallest principle stress.[14] Another theory, based on preliminary research, shows that the calving rate increases as a power of the spreading rate near the calving front.[citation needed]

A major calving event occurred in 1962 to 1963. Currently, there is a section at the front of the shelf referred to as the 'loose tooth'. This section, about 30 km by 30 km is moving at about 12 meters per day and is expected to eventually calve away.[15]

Photographer James Balog and his team were examining this glacier in 2008 when their cameras caught a piece of glacier the size of Lower Manhattan fall into the ocean.[18] The calving event lasted for 75 minutes, during which time the glacier retreated a full mile across a calving face three miles (five kilometers) wide. Adam LeWinter and Jeff Orlowski captured this footage, which is featured in the film Chasing Ice.

On one end of the scale, Antarctic ice shelves calve huge tabular icebergs over decades or longer, for example the likely imminent calving of Larsen C. At the other end of the scale, small fast flowing glaciers such as the San Rafael glacier in Chile almost continually calve small chunks of ice into their fjords, which makes for a spectacular tourist attraction!

Rates of calving often change annually, with calving slowing or shutting down entirely over the winter. Many different environmental factors such as melting of the glacier surface, undercutting of the calving face by warm fjord water or the resistance from sea ice in fjords combine to promote or prohibit calving.

Video footage of a calving event discussed by Fabian Walter caught my attention as being potentially significant. The footage shows a small calving event from the surface of the calving front, followed barely three minutes later by a much larger calving of the whole glacier front. This poses the question of whether the removal of ice from the surface could have increased the buoyancy of the glacier front enough to trigger the second much larger event, within the timescale of minutes.

Longevity and lifetime productivity are important factors influencing profitability for the cow-calf producer. Heifers that conceive earlier in the breeding season will calve earlier in the calving season and have a longer interval to rebreeding. Calves born earlier in the calving season will also be older and heavier at weaning. Longevity data were collected on 2,195 heifers from producers in South Dakota Integrated Resource Management groups. Longevity and weaning weight data were collected on 16,549 individual heifers at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC). Data were limited to heifers that conceived during their first breeding season. Heifers were grouped into 21-d calving periods. Heifers were determined to have left the herd when they were diagnosed not pregnant at the end of the breeding season. Heifers that left the herd for reasons other than reproductive failure were censored from the data. Heifers that calved with their first calf during the first 21-d period of the calving season had increased (P

To better understand the influence of mélange on calving, we analyzed time series of digital elevation models (DEMs) derived from TRI observations of the terminus of Jakobshavn Isbræ, allowing us to monitor changes in mélange thickness. Ice flow and glacier calving were also analyzed using TRI and satellite data (below and Xie et al.6). Our results reveal the details of mélange behavior during a period of glacier quiescence, providing evidence that tightly-packed mélange can suppress iceberg calving.

Calving events inferred from TRI and satellite images. Due to limited temporal sampling of the data, we are not able to determine the exact time of each calving event. Instead, we mark each calving event in time defined by the closest two usable images (colored dots), defined as no dense cloud coverage at the glacier front in the satellite images. Black dots at 9 and 21 May 2016 represent the acquisition times of two Sentinel-1 images. Black dots at 10 and 20 June 2016 represent acquisition times of TRI images. Two vertical dotted lines mark the 30-day period between 21 May to 20 June. For each year, the time between the grey dot on the left (first acquisition of satellite image between the study period of the year) and the useable image represent the earliest period without calving. If the image represented by the first blue or light blue dot shows no calving events compared to an image before 00:00 1 March in the corresponding year, we put the grey dot at 00:00 1 March. E.g., Landsat-8 images acquired at 14:54 26 February 2017 to until 14:54 15 April 2017 show no calving event during this period. If there is no grey dot on the left of the corresponding year (in 2008, 2010, 2012, due to cloud coverage on Landsat-7 optical images), then the first light blue dot represents the first usable image in the corresponding year. Similarly, grey dot on the right for each year indicates the last usable image that shows no calving event compare to the image shown by the last blue or light blue dot in the corresponding year. If there is no grey dot on the right of the corresponding year, it is either because the last blue or light blue dot marks the last usable image, or some calving events occurred after the last shown date in the corresponding year

We have proposed that loss of the wedge-like mélange immediately in front of the glacier contributes to renewed calving. We now attempt to quantify this effect in terms of changes in buttressing force, using two approaches20,21,31,32 (see Methods).

Our new observations yield direct support for the hypothesis that tightly packed mélange can suppress iceberg calving. While this is consistent with previous research8,9,10,11,20,21,33, our observations and analysis provide important new insights. In particular, these new data provide a quantitative framework to map tidal-timescale or shorter timescale elevation variations of pro-glacial mélange and their influence on calving across the entire glacier front. To our knowledge, this is the first quantitative study of mélange changes at daily and sub-daily timescale, and the first observation of a step-like boundary within the mélange, separating low elevation, loosely packed downstream mélange from a wedge of more tightly packed mélange near the glacier front. Past estimates of mélange thickness used in modeling either relied on limited data (characterised by low-spatial resolution and/or long revisit times)32,33,34 or assumed a uniform thickness for the mélange20,21. Our observations clearly show a distinct thickness change in the mélange within a few kilometers of the glacier front during periods of suppressed calving. The TRI technique and our approach can be applied to other tidewater glacier systems. Given that iceberg calving at large outlet glaciers is a major mass loss process in Greenland, and mélange can buttress the calving front and reduce calving, accurate observation and modeling of the influence of ephemeral to perennial proglacial mélange may contribute to improved understanding of dynamic ice sheet changes.


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