Destructive Beauty: Icebergs Flip with the Power of an Atomic Bomb

Even though they seem like gentle giants, icebergs have the fatal potential to tip over. This not only exposes their gorgeous underbelly to the world, but it also causes earthquakes, tsunamis, and has the potential to swallow nearby boats.

However, what initially causes these enormous ice mountains to collapse? We need to define icebergs before we can fully understand this process.

A few hours after this iceberg flipped, the photo was captured. Photo courtesy of Chris Feichtner

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines an iceberg as a large piece of ice that has broken off from a glacier or shelf ice and is drifting freely in the ocean. Furthermore, icebergs are made of freshwater and are produced by snowfall, while floating in the saline sea. However, they have to fulfill certain requirements in order to be classified as an iceberg.

Icebergs need to have a minimum surface area of 5,382 square feet, a minimum thickness of 98-164 feet, and a maximum top elevation of 16 feet above sea level. A “bergy bit” or “growler” is the term for anything smaller. Large to medium-sized bergy chunks of ice that have risen to a height of three feet or more above sea level usually cover an area of 1076-3,229 square feet. Under that size, something is called a growler. They frequently resemble cars or buses in size.

The tips of icebergs that you see floating make up only 10% of the entire mass of the glacier, which is usually submerged beneath. Photo courtesy of Greenland Travel

An iceberg is extremely stable because most of its bulk is maintained beneath the sea by gravity. Once icebergs get to this point, they are unlikely to tip over. Consequently, the chance of an iceberg toppling is highest during the moment of formation.

Think about pushing a plastic toy or rubber duck beneath the water and seeing how, when released, they will come back to the same spot on the water’s surface. The most stable position for these objects will be determined by gravity, which also causes an iceberg to tip over. Due to its irregular shape, an iceberg that breaks off from the glacier and falls into the ocean is incredibly unstable. It will try to sink the majority of its weight below the surface so that gravity will keep it floating in a stable position.

This is exactly how it looks in the video below. It shows an iceberg breaking apart and finally landing in one place after displacing most of its weight below the surface. The movie was recorded at Jökulsárlón, a lake in Iceland. The icebergs that break off from Breiamerkurjökull glacier are the reason for the lake’s fame.

It’s a breathtaking sight, but it can also be very dangerous. Larger icebergs, which are common, have the potential to produce earthquakes or even tsunamis, even though smaller ones might not be harmful.

Iceberg A-76, a giant iceberg that broke off from Antarctica’s Ronne Ice Shelf, is currently the largest iceberg in the world. It is somewhat bigger than the Spanish island of Majorca, at about 4320 square kilometers. It is unnerving to consider the amount of force that something so large may produce.

The world’s largest iceberg is called A-76. Picture attribution: European Space Agency

Researchers at the University of Chicago discovered that an atomic bomb could simply be released by an iceberg that capsizes, releasing energy equivalent to some of the world’s most catastrophic events. When icebergs flip, it can result in tsunamis. If this happens near the mainland or another solid surface, the ground may tremble violently enough to be mistaken for an earthquake.

Scientists have managed to build a miniature replica of an iceberg flip. It is evident that gravity pushes the vast majority of the model iceberg into the ocean. It agitates the water ferociously, creating a wave. Imagine how it might appear with actual icebergs.

But icebergs are not just lethal when they capsize—just think of the Titanic accident. In 1912, a piece of underwater iceberg scraped along the side of the British ocean liner for around seven seconds, causing the ship to finally capsize in the dangerous Iceberg Alley.

The International Ice Patrol was established to prevent iceberg-related accidents. They warn ships of possible dangers and locate and monitor icebergs.

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