South Georgia Island Under Threat From “World’s Largest Iceberg”

The British Overseas territory of South Georgia Island has always held a special place in the hearts of adventurers and history buffs. Located deep in the Southern Ocean, this remote and wild place played a crucial role in the story of Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance, making it a mecca of sort for travelers.

The sub-antarctic island is also home to some of the largest penguin and seal colonies globally, which has made it a top destination for wildlife lovers. But now, South Georgia finds itself potentially under siege from an unexpected threat—one that could cause catastrophic damage to its delicate ecosystem.

Photo Credit: Kraig Becker

Collision Course with the World’s Biggest Iceberg

Last week, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) sent out a press release announcing that new satellite imagery indicates that iceberg A68a is currently on a collision course with South Georgia.

Considering that the island is located in the Southern Ocean, not far from the Antarctic continent, it seems likely that icebergs have floated ashore there before. What makes this one different is the size of the iceberg in question.

A68a broke off from the Larsen C Ice Shelf back in 2017, creating quite a stir amongst climatologists and global warming deniers. At the time, the chunk of ice was roughly 1815 square miles (4700 sq. km) in size, easily making it the largest iceberg on the ocean. To put that into perspective, that’ about 80 times the size of Manhattan.

The iceberg hasn’t lost much in terms of size since then, but it has slowly but steadily floated northward. It had been assumed that it would float harmlessly into the ocean, where over time, it would break up into smaller, more manageable chunks of ice.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened, and now A68a is drifting directly towards South Georgia, where it could have dire consequences.

Photo Credit: Kraig Becker

A Potential Ecological Disaster

Save for a small British naval station and research center; South Georgia is mainly uninhabited. It is home to one of the largest colonies of king penguins, however, and both fur and elephant seal make their home there as well.

Should the iceberg actually reach the island, the human population will not likely see much of an impact. Still, the wildlife, on the other hand, could find its habitat severely impacted.

The mere presence of an iceberg the size of A68a is enough to disrupt the sea life around South Georgia, potentially driving away fish species that the penguins and seals need to survive.

That could create a catastrophic disruption to feeding patterns and nesting grounds, although the impact could be much bigger should the massive iceberg actually crash into the island directly.

In the BAS press release, an ecologist by the name of Dr. Geraint Tarling is quoted as saying, “Ecosystems can and will bounce back of course, but there’s a danger here that if this iceberg gets stuck, it could be there for 10 years. An iceberg has massive implications for where land-based predators might be able to forage.”

Photo Credit: Kraig Becker

Penguins and Seals at Risk

Tarling explains that if the iceberg stays in South Georgia waters for an extended period of time, it will cause plankton, krill, and other fish species to leave the area. This would cause the seals and penguins to travel much further to find food for their young.

The island serves as a breeding and rearing ground for several species whose young are at risk while their parents are away foraging for food. The further they have to travel to find sustenance for their babies, the longer they’ll be away. That could have a devastating effect on the wildlife population in South Georgia, which already exists in a delicate balance.

It isn’t all bad news; however, as Tarling has also said, “the iceberg does bring benefits if it remains in the open ocean. It carries enormous quantities of dust that fertilize the ocean plankton in the water that cascades up the food chain. This plankton also draws in carbon from the atmosphere, partially offsetting human CO2 emissions.”

In other words, in the long run, A68a could be a good thing for the environment, particularly if it turns in a more northerly direction, missing South Georgia altogether.

A Paradise for Adventurers

A few years back, I had the opportunity to visit South Georgia for myself, and it quickly became one of my favorite places on the planet. You can read more about the adventure here, but surface to say—South Georgia lives up to all of the hype in terms of rugged, remote, and wild places.

Thinking about the island being under threat from a massive iceberg is a bit disconcerting. I’ve hiked its trails and walked amongst the penguins and seals found there, and it truly is a magical place. Let’s hope that the iceberg changes course and avoid the island altogether, as it would be truly tragic to have this pristine environment destroyed.

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