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Coast Guard ice patrol: Huge iceberg 'probably' no concern

New London - The U.S. Coast Guard International Ice Patrol says the massive ice island that recently broke free from a glacier in Greenland is not their iceberg - at least not yet.

At 100 square miles, the chunk of ice that calved off the Petermann Glacier earlier this month is about a seventh the size of New London County. But it is so far north that it falls into the Canadian Ice Service's territory.

The New London-based IIP monitors iceberg danger farther south, near the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Most icebergs will break apart, melt or run aground during the one to three years it takes to reach the same area where the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in 1912.

"It's not on I-95. It's not a direct path," said Donald Murphy, oceanographer at the IIP. "If you're an iceberg that far north, a lot of things can happen to you before you make it to the shipping lanes."

The earliest the IIP could see pieces of the ice island in the shipping lanes would be the end of the 2011 ice season, but more likely the 2012 season, Murphy said.

Cmdr. Lisa Mack, commanding officer of the unit, said the ice island "potentially could be a concern but probably not" since less than 1 percent of the ice calved off Greenland makes it to the Grand Banks.

"The fact that it's so large is a good thing because people will be able to detect it from pretty far away," Mack said. "It's when the pieces get smaller that they're more difficult to detect with radar, and that's where the danger is."

This ice island is the biggest piece of ice to split from the Arctic icecap since 1962, when an ice island twice the size of the current one broke free.

A much smaller iceberg separated from the Petermann Glacier in 2008. That iceberg traveled down the east coast of Canada and grounded in Frobisher Bay.

The current ice island would most likely follow a similar route down the coast, given the currents, unless it gets caught in the fjord where the glacier is located, said David Jackson, director of the Canadian Ice Service, in an interview.

It has traveled about six miles through the fjord, toward the Nares Strait that separates Greenland and Canada's Ellesmere Island, Jackson said.

"For it to become a hazard, it will take quite a bit of time before it might move into the shipping lanes," Jackson said. "I want to stress that this is not the emergency that some people seem to think it might be. It does not pose any hazard right now but it is a significant event because of the size of it."

The CIS is monitoring the ice island several times a day using satellite imagery. If it exits the fjord, Jackson said, the CIS plans to place a beacon on it for tracking. The agency earlier had noticed the cracks in the glacier and expected a piece to break off.

Jackson said the IIP will be kept up to date. Neither Jackson nor Mack could say whether the ice island splitting is a sign of global warming, as some have asserted.

"There are too so many different things going on in the fjord - water temperature, air temperature," Jackson said. "Is it related to global climate change? I can't and wouldn't say, but the scientific interest is very significant."

Jackson said he only wishes he had been there when the ice island broke free.

"It must have been quite a sound," he said, "like a battery of artillery."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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