Washington, Nov 28 : A team of Penn State University researchers has derived a new variable which suggests that the faster an ice shelf spreads, the more rapid is its break-off.
This may help scientists improve their climate models and glaciologists predict where icebergs will calve off from their parent ice sheets.
"To predict the future of the ice sheet and to understand the past, we have to put the information into a computer," said Richard B. Alley, the Evan Pugh professor of geosciences at Penn State.
"The models we have do not currently have any way to figure out where the big ice sheets end and where the ice calves off to form icebergs," he added.
Ice sheets, such as those in Antarctica and Greenland, spread under their own weight and flow off land over the oceans.
The Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica floats for as much as 500 miles over the ocean before the edges begin to break and create icebergs. Other ice shelves only edge over the water for a mile or two.
"The problem of when things break is a really hard problem because there is so much variability," said Alley.
For iceberg calving, the important variable - the one that accounts for the largest portion of when the iceberg breaks - is the rate at which ice shelves spread, according to the research team.
When ice shelves spread, they crack because of the stresses of spreading.
If they spread slowly, those cracks do not propagate through the entire shelf and the shelf remains intact. If the shelf spreads rapidly, the cracks propagate through the shelf and pieces break off.
"Spreading explains most of what is observed on the ice sheet," said Alley. "However, the equations come out a little better if we include a few other things," he added.
These factors are the width of the ice shelf and the thickness.
With a narrow shelf between two ridges, for example, the sides hold back the ice movement, slowing the overall movement and making it harder to break the ice.
Thicker ice shelves spread more quickly, so this affects the location of ice calving as well.
The basic equation for ice calving is the rate of spreading times the width of the shelf times the thickness times a constant.
The researchers realize that this does not capture the totality of variation in the ice calving process, but does account for a large percentage of the variability.