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Image: Crack in ice shelf
Michael Studinger  /  NASA
Part of an 18-mile-long crack in the Pine Island Glacier ice shelf is seen from a NASA jet on Oct. 26.
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updated 11/2/2011 4:43:59 PM ET 2011-11-02T20:43:59

Scientists on an aerial survey of Antarctica have come across an 18-mile-long break in an ice shelf — a sign that the sensitive area is giving birth to an iceberg that will be larger than New York City.

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"We are actually now witnessing how it happens," Michael Studinger, project scientist with NASA's IceBridge survey, said in a statement Wednesday. "It’s part of a natural process but it’s pretty exciting to be here and actually observe it while it happens."

The scientists were aboard a NASA jet on Oct. 14, making measurements of Pine Island Glacier and its ice shelf, when they came across the crack.

Glaciers naturally give birth to icebergs, but scientists are concerned that warming temperatures might be destabilizing those in Antarctica and Greenland by eroding the ice shelves floating on water that hold them back up against the mainland.

Without the ice shelves, those glaciers could flow much faster into the ocean, raising sea levels.

Scientists call Pine Island Glacier "the largest source of uncertainty in global sea level rise projections," NASA noted in its statement.

Story: More weather disasters ahead, climate experts report

"It is likely that once the iceberg floats away, the leading edge of the ice shelf will have receded farther than at any time since its location was first recorded in the 1940s," NASA noted.

The team estimated the ice might finally break away from the shelf "in the coming months" now that the Southern Hemisphere is entering its summer.

Pine Island Glacier last calved a large iceberg in 2001.

The NASA team measured the rift at about 820 feet apart at its widest, and about 260 feet wide along most of the crack.

The deepest points were nearly 200 feet.

Image: Crack in ice shelf
NASA
A close-up shot shows the depth of the rift.

The ice shelf around the rift is about 1,640 feet thick, the team estimated.

"When the iceberg breaks free it will cover about 340 square miles of surface area," NASA stated. By contrast, New York City comes in at 302 square miles.

As far as icebergs go, however, 340 square miles isn't anywhere near a record. A few have topped several thousand square miles and the record is a 12,000-square-mile behemoth spotted in 1956.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Interactive: The northern front: A forewarning of changes worldwide

Video: Iceberg larger than Manhattan found in Antarctica

  1. Transcript of: Iceberg larger than Manhattan found in Antarctica

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: And scientists on a flyover of Antarctica have discovered an iceberg larger than the island of Manhattan . They came upon a huge crack in a glacier. They say when this fully separates, it'll mean the smallest ice shelf at the South Pole since the 1940s . This particular shelf is 1600 feet thick.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: And speaking of New York , it is shrinking according to new data that show it's going from 304 square miles to 302. They say most of the land mass shrinkage is in Brooklyn and Queens , so residents there, you've been warned.

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