WORLD’S LARGEST ICEBERG NEARS COLLISION WITH SOUTH GEORGIA ISLAND; COULD IMPERIL PENGUINS

Unique wildlife could be threatened by an iceberg larger than the state of Rhode Island that broke off Antarctica in 2017

The side of Iceberg A68a as pictured by a Royal Air Force photographer in December. (RAF Photographer Royal Navy)
The side of Iceberg A68a as pictured by a Royal Air Force photographer in December. (RAF Photographer Royal Navy) 

By Andrew FreedmanDec. 10, 2020 at 10:13 a.m. MSTAdd to list

An iceberg larger than the state of Rhode Island that broke off an Antarctic ice shelf in 2017 is closing in on South Georgia Island, a British territory in the south Atlantic Ocean. The iceberg, designated A68a by the National Ice Center, is being steered by ocean currents to a position closer to the island, which is home to large colonies of penguins, seals and other unique wildlife.

The iceberg is less than 31 miles off the coast of South Georgia Island, and a shallow shelf area extending from the island means that a collision could occur within days if ocean currents push the iceberg northward.

The iceberg is more than 650 feet thick, with about nine-tenths of it underwater, according to David Long, director of the center for remote sensing at Brigham Young University who has been tracking the iceberg. Above the water, the iceberg features steep cliffs along its edges.

“If it does hit the island, it will hit the undersea shelf and ground offshore,” Long said via email. “Note that the island and iceberg are about the same size!”

Satellite image of Iceberg A68a, bottom, as it nears South Georgia Island, top, on Dec. 9. (NASA)
Satellite image of Iceberg A68a, bottom, as it nears South Georgia Island, top, on Dec. 9. (NASA) 

Should the iceberg, which is about 93 miles long and 30 miles wide, become grounded just off the coast, it could become difficult for the millions of king and macaroni penguins, seals and seabirds to find food, such as fish, forcing them to travel long distances around the iceberg. In addition, blue whales feed just off the coast of the island, and this could complicate their access to krill.

Long had previously thought the iceberg would be at risk of getting stuck on South Georgia Island’s eastern side, but it has defied those expectations so far.

“I originally thought that A68a would pass south of South Georgia Island, then be swept back to ground on the east side of the island like previous similarly large icebergs,” he said.

The iceberg’s precise movements in coming days and weeks are uncertain, since it’s being steered by ocean currents and storms can affect it as well. However, it’s so close to the island that a collision appears more likely than not, and much more likely than just a month ago, when the iceberg began drawing closer to the island.

“It is so large that the local wildlife will struggle to get to food sources, and we may see a population crash.”

Mark Belchier, director of fisheries and environment for the government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, told BBC News that wildlife on the island are at a particularly sensitive point in their life cycle, as it’s a critical time of year for breeding.

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