What was once the biggest iceberg in the world released over 167 billion tons of freshwater during a three-month period and nearly one trillion tons in its lifespan, which could have profound effects on wildlife, scientists say.
The A68A iceberg was part of the Larsen-C Ice Shelf on the Antarctica peninsula before it broke off in July 2017. At the time, it was the biggest iceberg on Earth at 2,208 square miles, larger than the state of Delaware.
However when the iceberg broke off, it began to drift across the Southern Ocean. In Dec. 2020, the iceberg began to approach South Georgia island, which is around 1,300 miles off the Argentina coast. The island is home to many wildlife, including penguins and seals.
Scientists said the iceberg broke apart just before it could have hit the seabed. A collision could have seriously damaged the island’s ecosystem, including killing wildlife.
A team of international scientists then examined the size of the iceberg since it first broke off over three years ago using three satellites to check area size and two to examine the thickness. The team found the iceberg had released over 167 billion tons of water around the island in a three-month period. That would be enough water to fill 61 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.
The findings are set to be published in the March 1 edition of Remote Sensing of Environment.
“This is a huge amount of melt water,” Anne Braakmann-Folgmann, researcher at the University of Leeds in England and Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling, said in a statement.
The melting was due to the iceberg’s movement from the cold waters along the Drake Passage to the warmer Scotia Sea near the island. When the iceberg got near the island, it dropped in thickness from 771 feet to 219 feet, most of which occurred from Nov. 2020-Jan. 2021.
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Luckily, the melting was enough to break the iceberg so it’s “less of a risk in terms of blockage” of the island, but it still could have massive effects on it. The cold freshwater drifts with the oceans currents, so the mixture with the salty warm waters will release nutrients into the waters.
Scientists believe this will change or produce new plankton in the area, which impacts the local food chain. What this means for the environment in the long term is still undetermined.
“The next thing we want to learn is whether it had a positive or negative impact on the ecosystem around South Georgia,” Braakmann-Folgmann said. “Because A68A took a common route across the Drake Passage, we hope to learn more about icebergs taking a similar trajectory, and how they influence the polar oceans.”
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