In 2017, one of the world’s largest icebergs — the A-68 iceberg in Antarctica — went the way of every boy band of all time and broke up. The solo career of one of the hunks of this massive block of ice, A-68a, has been harrowing. The former chunk of ice shelf that once stretched 2,240 square miles and was 761 feet thick drifted dangerously close to the island of South Georgia – threatens to scratch the sea floor in the process – before it finally burns out. But while the main crisis was avoided when the iceberg Missed South Georgia and managed not to get stuck, one is only just beginning to understand the ramifications of this huge chunk out of place.
On Thursday the European Space Agency revealed that A-68a has inundated the ocean. As the iceberg melts into the warmer waters it’s now sitting in, it’s released a massive 168 billion tons of freshwater. According to the University of Leeds, which is about 20 times the amount of water that Loch Ness takes up, or more water than would be needed to fill 61 million Olympic-size swimming pools. That is much.
It’s also not good for the surrounding ecosystems in South Georgia. During the melting that was identified by the Center for Polar Observation and Modeling (CPOM) and British Antarctic Survey (BAS) via satellite measurements, was probably necessary to prevent the iceberg from scraping the seabed and causing irreparable damage, and also creates new problems. All of this fresh water contains a host of oceanic nutrients that are not native to the sensitive ecosystem around South Georgia.
The tiny island is surprisingly dense with endangered and endangered species. It is home to seals, penguins and birds and serves as a feeding ground for migrating whales. The sudden influx of lots and lots of water filled with unfamiliar nutrients will have an impact on these creatures and their surroundings — although researchers aren’t sure if it will be beneficial or potentially destructive. Some experts have suggested that dust contained in the ice could help fertilize plankton and improve food availability in the region. The ESA written down that the release of water “[influence] the local ocean circulation,” and that scientists need to keep monitoring to track the effects.
What happens to A-68a in the end is important because it likely won’t be the last rogue iceberg to make its way into uncharted territory. The researchers noted that the path the block of former ice shelf ultimately took could be one that future iceberg fragments will also follow, and these will similarly affect the oceans in which they land. With A-68a we are basically witnessing a scientific experiment. Let’s hope it has a positive impact.