Scientists are monitoring the progress of a massive iceberg drifting out away from Antarctica. Pictured: An iceberg photographed near Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland, on August 12, 2023.
A massive iceberg, five times bigger than New York City, is on the move and about to leave the Antarctic Peninsula—bound for the open waters of the southern Atlantic Ocean.
The giant icy mass, with the snappy moniker of “A23a,” first broke away from Antarctica in 1986. However, it almost immediately became stuck to the ocean floor of the Weddell Sea and remained ‘beached’ there until a few years ago. In 2020, it detached from sea floor and began to drift in a journey that is being monitored by scientists and iceberg enthusiasts from around the world. Although it has been drifting for years, a sudden burst of activity and increased rate of movement has seen renewed interest in A23a over recent days.
Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth, with temperatures sometimes plunging to a frigid -135.8 F. Chunks of ice do break away, or “calve,” occasionally in a natural process of iceberg formation. Icebergs can benefit the ecosystems and food chains surrounding them as they release minerals into the sea as they melt. But there have been concerns in recent years that rising sea temperatures caused by climate change are contributing to a greater amount of ice loss.
However, in the case of A23a, experts don’t believe that climate change is responsible for its sudden lurch to life. “I asked a couple of colleagues about this, wondering if there was any possible change in shelf water temperatures that might have provoked it, but the consensus is the time had just come,” Andrew Fleming, a remote sensing expert from the British Antarctic Survey, told the BBC last week. “It was grounded since 1986 but eventually it was going to decrease [in size] sufficiently to lose grip and start moving. I spotted first movement back in 2020.”
Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) released striking satellite imagery on Friday, tracking A23a’s path as it barrels forward, toward the outer edges of the Weddell Sea. The iceberg’s path so far was shared on X (the social media site previously known as Twitter) on Friday. It can be viewed in the attached video above, or in the BAS post here:
The post accompanying the footage said “The largest iceberg, A23a, is on the move! Here’s its journey out of the Weddell Sea after being grounded on the sea floor after calving in August 1986.”
The 18-second clip sparked wonder online and has been viewed almost 47,000 times.
In a follow-up post, BAS also added that its researchers have developed a new AI tool to detect icebergs in the Southern Ocean. “This is the first step towards scientists being able to track the complete life cycle of most icebergs across Antarctica from satellite data!” a post said.
The chart plotted by BAS showed that A23a’s journey is not a linear affair. Instead, the iceberg has taken a meandering trajectory as its movement is dictated by ocean currents and winds. The footage shows how the iceberg even gradually rotates as it drifts along.
The iceberg has nearly made its way out of the Weddell Sea. It is currently making its way past the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and is heading toward the southern Atlantic Ocean.
Newsweek has reached out to BAS by email seeking further information and comment.
A23a looks set to be ejected into the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, a treacherous stretch of water for ships dubbed “iceberg alley.”
The area was traversed by explorer Ernest Shackleton after he made his eventual escape in a lifeboat following the loss of his ship, the Endurance, which was crushed by pack ice in the Weddell Sea in 1915. Eerie footage filmed in 2022, more than 100 years after the shipwreck, revealed the vessel has been almost perfectly preserved at the bottom of the ocean.
There are fears that A23a may get grounded again, close to South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic, which could have a devastating impact on wildlife in the region.
If the iceberg became beached by the island, it could pose a problem for millions of seals, penguins, and seabirds that breed on the island. A23a could block the creatures’ normal foraging routes, preventing them from feeding their young, according to reports.
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