* Iceberg collision could affect global ocean circulation
* Scientists on mission to Antarctica to study aftermath
* Team studies impact of rising acidity on animals with
By David Fogarty, Climate Change Correspondent, Asia
SINGAPORE, Jan 31 (Reuters) - The breaking off of a
Luxembourg-sized iceberg in Antarctica could affect ocean
circulation patterns and be a harbinger of changes to come from
global warming, scientists on a mission to the frozen continent
Last February, a 2,500 sq km (965 sq m) iceberg broke off
from a giant floating tongue of ice from the Mertz Glacier after
being rammed by an even larger iceberg.
The ice tongue, sticking out into the Southern Ocean, had
acted like a dam, preventing sea ice from moving into a
permanently open section of water to the west.
But now with the ice tongue gone due the collision,
scientists fear it could trigger changes to the behaviour of a
major part of global ocean circulation patterns that shift heat
around the globe via myriad currents at the surface and along
The area around the glacier tongue, since halved in length
by the collision, and to the west are one of the few places
around Antarctica where dense, salty water is formed and sinks
to the depths of the ocean, said mission leader Steve Rintoul on
This dense bottom water as it is called, is a key driver of
the global overturning circulation that includes the current
that brings warm Atlantic waters to western Europe.
But he said there was a risk the area could now be less
effective in producing the bottom water that feeds the deep
ocean currents, which influence global climate patterns.
"This is one of the few places around Antarctica where the
sea surface is made dense enough to sink to the deep ocean,"
Rintoul told Reuters from the icebreaker Aurora Australis near
the glacier about 2,500 km (1,560 miles) south of Hobart,
capital of Australia's Tasmania state.
"If the area is less effective in forming less dense water,
then that salinity now should be lower than it was in the past."
Rintoul is leading an international team of nearly 40
scientists on a voyage studying the impacts of the loss of the
glacier tongue as well as changes to ocean temperatures,
salinity and acidity.
Oceans act as a brake on climate change by soaking up large
amounts of heat and carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas,
from the atmosphere. But the more CO2 the oceans take up, the
more acidic they become, making it harder for animals such as
sea snails to make their shells.
Rintoul, an oceanographer with the Antarctic Climate and
Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre in Hobart, said the area
around the glacier remains free of ice all winter. Such areas
are called polynas.
"It remains free of ice because the winds blowing off the
continent are so strong it blows the ice away as rapidly as it
forms," he said.
"So in that sense, it is kind of a sea-ice factory and the
more sea ice that is formed, the saltier the water beneath the
sea ice becomes," leading to the creation of dense, salty water,
"We think the presence of the glacier tongue was part of what
made this a very active polyna," he said, adding he expected it
would be less effective now there was no ice tongue.
A Japanese-led study published earlier this month in the
Journal Nature Communications estimated that the loss of the ice
tongue led to nearly 25 percent less dense water formation.
Rintoul's team have been taking samples in the area
measuring salinity, temperature, oxygen and carbon and the
results will be studied over the coming weeks.
Studying the damage to the Mertz glacier would help efforts
to project future changes in climate, he said.
"It allows us to explore how sensitive the formation of that
dense water is to things like the shape of the continent and
change in the effectiveness in these polynas," he said.
As the oceans heated up, warmer water would likely increase
the rate these floating tongues of ice melted, he said, exposing
glaciers on the continent to warmer seas. This risked faster
rates of melting and discharge of ice into the ocean, raising
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