A giant iceberg the size of a small country is floating toward the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, raising fears it could indirectly endanger young wildlife.
The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) said on Wednesday it is concerned the iceberg may run aground near the island, preventing land-based marine predators from reaching food supplies and returning to their offspring.
Professor Geraint Tarling, an ecologist with the BAS, said it is the time of year when seals and penguins are tending to pups and chicks. The distance penguin and seal parents have to travel to find food is important.
"If they have to do a big detour, it means they’re not going to get back to their young in time to prevent them starving to death in the interim," he said.
The giant iceberg, named A68, has been floating north since it broke off from the Larsen C ice shelf in July 2017, the British Antarctic Survey said. It was at the time about 175km long and about 50km wide, a surface area larger than Luxembourg.
In comparison, South Georgia, a British overseas territory in the southern Atlantic ocean, is 165km long and 35km wide.
While satellite imagery currently plots its course towards a head-on collision with the island, sea currents could come into play and move the iceberg further north.
"Whether it grounds and gets stuck or drifts past the island is in the balance," Dr Peter Fretwell, a BAS remote-sensing and mapping specialist said.
“The currents should take it on what looks like a strange loop around the south end of South Georgia, before then spinning it along the edge of the continental shelf and back off to the northwest. But it’s very difficult to say precisely what will happen.”
While it does pose a risk to wildlife, the iceberg does bring with it some benefits if it stays in open water.
"It carries enormous quantities of dust that fertilise the ocean plankton in the water that cascades up the food chain," Tarling said. "This plankton also draws in carbon from the atmosphere, partially offsetting human CO2 emissions."