World's Biggest Iceberg Is on Its Death March

After breaking free of Antarctica, A23a receives visitors en route to the 'iceberg graveyard'
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 6, 2023 10:35 AM CST

Scientists just got an up-close look at the world's largest iceberg, now on a slow march to its death. The iceberg that hosted a Soviet research station before breaking off Antarctica's Filchner Ice Shelf in 1986 and becoming lodged on the floor of the Weddell Sea lost its anchor early this year and has traveled hundreds of miles along the length of the Antarctic Peninsula in recent months. The berg, three times the size of New York City with a surface area of 1,550 square miles, was observed near the tip of the peninsula on Friday by researchers aboard the RRS Sir David Attenborough, who are on a 10-day trip to investigate Antarctic ecosystems and sea ice, per USA Today. "It is amazing to see this huge berg in person," says chief scientist Andrew Meijers. "It stretches as far as the eye can see."

With help from ocean currents, A23a is now venturing north into the so-called "iceberg graveyard" of Drake Passage off the southern tip of South America, just as previous iceberg record holders have done. It could potentially unleash more than 1 trillion tons of water as it ventures into warmer seas, reports Scientific American. But more concerning is the potential impact on the penguin colonies of South Georgia, an inhabited island in the South Atlantic Ocean. If the berg were to collide with the island, it could disrupt the penguins' ability to feed. If it avoids South Georgia, the iceberg could potentially reach as far north as South Africa, where it could affect shipping routes, per Reuters. However, fracture lines in its surface suggest the iceberg will break up before it can travel so far.

There will be benefits as well as risks. "We know that these giant icebergs can provide nutrients to the waters they pass through, creating thriving ecosystems in otherwise less productive areas," Laura Taylor, a biogeochemist on the research mission, tells USA Today. "What we don't know is what difference particular icebergs, their scale, and their origins can make to that process." She says the team "took samples of ocean surface waters behind, immediately adjacent to, and ahead of the iceberg's route" to "help us determine what life could form around A23a, and how this iceberg and others like it impact carbon in the ocean and its balance with the atmosphere." The British Antarctic Survey released video footage of the iceberg, "including drone footage that showed a pod of orcas swimming next to [it]," CBS News reports. (More Iceberg stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.