A massive iceberg the size of Manhattan has broken away from Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier and threatens shipping if it drifts into international trading waters.
The iceberg, roughly 270 square miles in size, broke off from the Antarctic mainland in July. UK researchers were recently awarded an emergency grant to track the giant formation, the Telegraph reports.
"Its current movement does not raise environmental issues. However, a previous giant iceberg from this location eventually entered the South Atlantic and if this happens it could potentially pose a hazard to ships,” Professor Grant Bigg from the University of Sheffield, one of the scientists involved, told Sky News.
Depending on where the iceberg melts will have lasting consequences on the surrounding currents. "If the iceberg stays around the Antarctic coast, it will melt slowly and will eventually add a lot of freshwater that stays in the coastal current, altering the density and affecting the speed of the current,” Briggs explains. "Similarly, if it moves north it will melt faster but could alter the overturning rates of the current as it may create a cap of freshwater above the denser seawater."
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When the iceberg first broke away it remained iced-in since was winter in Antarctica. But in the past couple of days, water has begun to come between the iceberg and the glacier. As it begins to drift away from the continent, Briggs worries one possible trajectory – where the iceberg goes through The Drake Passage -- the body of water between South America's Cape Horn and Antarctica's South Shetland Islands -- could have dire consequences.
The six-month project to track the iceberg will use the same technology that spotted the giant mass in the first place: data from satellites including the German TerraSAR-X that identified the iceberg in July. The iceberg, called PIG after the glacier it broke away from, began to crack in October 2011. If it does enter international trade lanes, a warning would be issued to ice hazard agencies around the world, the BBC reports.
Briggs estimates the iceberg could survive a year or more before melting completely.
"The primary reason to monitor the iceberg is that it's very large,” he said. "There's a lot of activity to and from the Antarctic Peninsula, and ships could potentially cross paths with this large iceberg, although it would be an unusual coincidence."