STOCKHOLM — An island of ice more than four times the size of Manhattan is drifting across the Arctic Ocean after breaking off from a glacier in Greenland.
Potentially in the path of this unstoppable giant are oil platforms and shipping lanes. In a worst-case scenario, large chunks could reach the heavily trafficked waters where another Greenland iceberg sank the Titanic in 1912.
The moment the Petermann Glacier cracked last week — creating the biggest Arctic ice island in half a century — may symbolize a warming world like no other. "It's so big that you can't prevent it from drifting. You can't stop it," said Jon-Ove Methlie Hagen, a glaciologist at the University of Oslo.
The island of ice already is being used as a powerful emblem in the global warming debate, with U.S. Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts suggesting it could serve as a home for climate change skeptics.
Researchers are scrambling to plot the trajectory of the 100-square-mile ice shelf, which is moving toward the Nares Strait separating Greenland's northwestern coast and Canada's Ellsemere Island.
If it makes it into the strait before the winter freeze — due to start next month — it would likely be carried south by ocean currents, hugging Canada's east coast until it enters waters busy with oil activities and shipping off Newfoundland.
The Canadian Ice Service estimates the journey will take one to two years. It's likely to break up as it bumps into other icebergs and jagged islands.
"But the fragments may still be quite large," warned Trudy Wohlleben, a Canadian ice forecaster, who first spotted the massive chunk of ice on satellite images on Thursday.
The chunks of ice could be large enough to threaten Canada's offshore platforms in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, said Wohlleben.
While Greenland's glaciers break off thousands of icebergs into Arctic waters every year, scientists say this ice island is the biggest in the Northern Hemisphere since 1962. It contains enough freshwater to keep the Hudson River flowing for more than two years, said Andreas Muenchow of the University of Delaware.