By Debbie McCulliss
Besides a global pandemic, 2020 was marked by historic wildfires, droughts, landslides, and severe storms. Winter came later, snowmelt came earlier, families were forced to evacuate their homes, farmers experienced economic loss, and tourists, if they were even able to get to their destination, may have found fewer available activities. Symptomatic of these natural disasters, an enormous chunk of ice broke off of Antarctica and now threatens South Georgia Island, a critical breeding and feeding area for penguins, sea birds, whales, and other wildlife.
Penguins, seals, mountains, and icebergs
South Georgia Island is a biologically rich, remote British territory located in the South Atlantic Ocean, about 1,300 miles from the tip of South America. This sub-Antarctic island is the largest in a chain of smaller islands, known as the South Sandwich Islands. It is a virtually untouched winter wonderland that few people have ever seen.
In a previous article, “Penguins, Seals, and Icebergs, Oh My!” I wrote about my trip to South Georgia Island in October 2019, including its storied past, important role in the history of Antarctic exploration, abundance of wildlife, and majestic natural beauty—snowcapped mountains, fjords, and icebergs. The weather is unpredictable, and the terrain is barren, rugged, and even inhospitable. There is no airstrip, rescue, or other emergency service on the island, nor is there cell or Wi-Fi service. There are no permanent human residents living on South Georgia Island, only a rotating team of scientists and the millions of penguins, seals, and seabirds that call South Georgia Island home.
That was then
Up until the end of the 20th century, the Larsen C Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula had been stable for more than 10,000 years. In 1995, however, a huge chunk of ice broke off, followed by another in 2002.
In 2017, an iceberg named A68, since dubbed the A68a by the National Ice Center, broke off from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica—a still-cold but fast warming area. (In February 2020, a temperature of about 70 degrees was recorded on Seymour Island, which might be the continent’s highest temperature on record). As temperatures rise, the ice can flatten, which increases the likelihood of ice getting out to the edge of the continent where it can eventually snap off into the ocean. Scientists continue to investigate this most recent frozen Goliath, but according to National Geographic, climate change and the ice shelf’s natural life cycle may have played a role in A68a’s break off.
The ocean current and unpredictable weather are factors in the speed at which an iceberg moves. Originally, A68a was roughly the size of Delaware and Earth’s largest iceberg. Since it broke off, it meandered, drifting aimlessly, not moving much. Then in 2019 it began to slowly migrate north. In the past few months, the ocean current has propelled A68a almost a thousand miles in the South Atlantic Ocean. Some chunks have broken off as it traveled through the rough waters of “Iceberg Alley.”
This is now
Still on the move, a collision between this iceberg and South Georgia Island is possible and A68a has captured the attention of Antarctic researchers worldwide. Several news outlets have been reporting on this gigantic iceberg these past couple months, including National Geographic, The Washington Post, Science Alert, The Guardian, Business Insider, and BBC News.
By November 27th, A68a appeared to be drifting westward, away from South Georgia Island. On December 10th, the 93-mile long, 30-mile wide, 650-feet thick iceberg of 1500 square miles was less than 31 miles off of the west coast of South Georgia Island. By December 18th, as it approached the western shelf edge of the island, strong currents caused it to shift direction, which resulted in the mammoth iceberg breaking into two pieces. One piece is about 12 miles long and six miles wide (already named A68d), and the other is about 80 miles long. A68d seems to be moving farther away from the original iceberg. The main tabular iceberg, characterized by a flat, plateau top and steep edges, was still on a collision course with the island. It seems to have been carried away from the western shelf edge, heading southeast toward another current that could very well sweep it around along the island’s eastern coast. On December 21st, several fissures were noted in the iceberg. As of December 23rd, several chucks of ice had broken off, resulting in newly formed icebergs—A68e and A68f. As of December 27th, the iceberg has continued to break apart into smaller pieces. By the end of 2020, the iceberg had broken into four total pieces.
As of January, 2021, A68d has been stationary, perhaps moored to the sea floor less than 40 miles from South Georgia. A68e seems to be following the Southern Antarctic Circumpolar Current Front (SACCF) and passing to the east of the island. The largest berg, A68a, seems caught in an eddy south of the island could still get grounded in the shallow waters around South Georgia. Sections have continued to break off and it is only about half its original size.
Scientists around the world surely hope that the SACCF will eventually carry the iceberg past South Georgia Island. They watch and wait to see what the iceberg will do next. If it anchors itself along the island’s coast, millions of breeding penguins and seals and their young, as well as the surrounding marine ecosystem, will be affected.
Life at Risk
Wildlife. Marine Life. Seabirds. All are at risk.
A collision of the A68a with South Georgia Island’s east coast has massive implications. If the iceberg anchors itself the shallow, 500-feet deep waters surrounding South Georgia Island, it will pose a grave threat to millions of breeding king, macaroni, chinstrap, and gentoo penguins as well as seals and other wildlife. These animals are trying to feed their young in summer months before the start of winter. The massive size of these icebergs could keep the adults from their normal foraging routes, which will impede their ability to obtain food from the open ocean and get back in reasonable time to feed their young.
This is a critical time for breeding and for pup- and chick-rearing. The distance that these flightless animals, many who spend much of their life in the water, would have to travel to find krill, fish, or squid, and bring back food might become unbearable. If it takes too long to bring back food, their young could starve to death. It wouldn’t be the first time a penguin chick die-off has happened.
Marine life will also be affected. The large and the small creatures. The waters around the island are home to recovering populations of humpback and blue whales. Besides the penguins, blue whales, the largest animals that exist (its tongue alone can weigh as much as an elephant) and which feed just off of the coast of the island, would also have limited access to krill, while other species of whales might have to find other feeding grounds. As a result, the population of these already endangered animals is even more at risk. The A68a could also be an obstacle to government ships conducting fishery surveillance around the island. The South Georgia Maritime Zone are home to some of the best managed and most sustainable fisheries in the world.
While large quantities of mineral dust are shed from massive icebergs and then fertilize the ocean waters and plankton around the icebergs, which is beneficial, fragile underwater ecosystems, home to mollusks, crustaceans, sponges, and other life, might be devastated, posing the threat of decreased biodiversity. The edge of the continental shelf is rich in phytoplankton and krill. Phytoplankton growth and productivity is supported by melting water from giant icebergs. Seabed communities of brittle stars, worms, and sea urchins, to name a few, help store large amounts of carbon in their body tissue and surrounding sediment. Carbon sequestration in the Southern Ocean contributes to helping slow global warming. Destruction by the iceberg could release stored carbon back into the water, and potentially, the atmosphere, which could be devastating in the efforts to slow climate change.
When huge icebergs melt, the water temperature of the surrounding sea is changed. The A68a berg could dump hundreds of millions of tons of frigid freshwater into the ocean, making living conditions more difficult for creatures, such as algae and planktonic organisms, that typically survive in saltwater. This, in turn, could affect the population of krill, fish and, thus, the penguins and seals. The A68a iceberg could be there for a decade or more and wreak havoc for years to come. The crushed seafloor ecosystem would take decades to recover.
For all of the scientific information, ultimately the ocean currents will decide the iceberg’s path. Only time will tell if the ocean currents will carry the iceberg away from South Georgia Island or not. It’s not the first example of a threat of this kind and it won’t be the last, as temperatures continue to rise.
Debbie McCulliss is a Colorado-based wildlife and nature photographer whose my work is represented in the Windfall Fine Art Gallery in Steamboat Springs.
She is a certified applied poetry facilitator and holds master’s degrees in nursing, science-medical writing and nonfiction writing. She came to photography after an unexpected fascination with the behavior of bald eagles. It didn’t take long before she fell in love with photographing a variety of wildlife and witnessing the strength, fragility, beauty and rhythm of nature. The more she learns, the bigger her photographic world becomes.
With camera in hand, she travels the globe, mostly to colder regions, to capture images that speak to the heart. She believes that her photography speaks, not only for her but for people who can only imagine what it would be like to explore the world with freedom of mind and imagination. Her goal is to create memorable art that inspires conversation.
See more of her work at debbiemccullissphotography.com.