A huge iceberg is currently heading toward South Georgia Island, where a collision could threaten the survival of an important penguin colony, according to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
The iceberg – dubbed A68a – is on a path to collide with South Georgia Island, a remote British overseas territory off the southern tip of South America.
Whether that collision is days or weeks away is unclear, as the iceberg has sped up and slowed down with the ocean currents along the way, said Geraint Tarling, a biological oceanographer with the BAS who has been tracking the berg.
The peninsula is understood to be one of the fastest-warming places on Earth, registering a record high temperature of 20.75 degrees Celsius (69.35 degrees Fahrenheit) on 9 February.
Scientists fear that if the iceberg collides with the island it could crush marine life on the sea floor, including coral, sponges and plankton.
Should it lodge at the island’s flank, it could block seals along with the island’s 2 million penguins from their normal foraging routes.
Some species, like King penguins, travel for up to 16 days to find food. If the iceberg event happens and causes considerable ecological disruption, that foraging trip could take longer.
Scientists have long been watching this climate-related event unfold, as the iceberg – about the same size as the island itself – has meandered and advanced over two years since breaking off from the Antarctic peninsula in July 2017.
However collision, while looking increasingly likely, could still be avoided if the currents carry the iceberg past the island, Tarling said.
The currents “still have the power to take this iceberg in one direction or another away from South Georgia,” Tarling said.
“But it is really, really close, less than 50 kilometres away from the south shelf edge,” he added. “That’s getting so close that it’s almost inevitable.”
Images captured by a British Royal Air Force aircraft and released this week show the magnitude of the 4,200-square-km (1,620-square-mile) iceberg, its surface carved with tunnels, cracks and fissures.
A number of smaller ice chunks can be seen floating nearby.
“The sheer size of the A68a iceberg means it is impossible to capture its entirety in one single shot,” British officials said in a statement.
A68a could also be an obstacle to government ships conducting fishery patrols and surveillance around South Georgia and the nearby South Sandwich Islands, British officials said.