In July of 2017, a piece of ice the size of Delaware broke off of Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf. When an iceberg breaks off from glacier’s terminus (the lowest end of a glacier) it is called calving.
At the time of its split, Iceberg A-68A measured 5,800 square kilometers (2,200 square miles), making it the world’s largest iceberg.
Tracking Cracks in the Larsen C Ice Shelf
Larsen C is a floating platform of glacial ice found on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Researchers had been tracking a crack that formed on the fourth largest ice shelf in Antarctica with satellite data. In 2014, a crack that had formed on Larsen C suddenly accelerated leading to the eventual birth of Iceberg A-68A in 2017.
This video shows the growth of the crack in the Larsen C ice shelf from 2006 to 2017 as captured by imagery from NASA/USGS Landsat satellites.
How are Icebergs Named?
Iceberg A-68A was named by the US National Ice Center which explains that icebergs are named based on the Antarctic quadrant in which they are signed:
A = 0-90W (Bellingshausen/Weddell Sea)
B = 90W-180 (Amundsen/Eastern Ross Sea)
C = 180-90E (Western Ross Sea/Wilkesland)
D = 90E-0 (Amery/Eastern Weddell Sea)
The number after the letter is a sequential number assigned to the iceberg. Iceberg A-68 therefore, is the 68th iceberg to have been recorded as formed in that Antarctic quadrant.
Letters starting with B after the iceberg’s name indicate any icebergs that have calved from the parent iceberg. Iceberg A68-A has calved two smaller icebergs so far since it broke off from Larsen C: Iceberg A68-B and Iceberg A-68C.
Iceberg A-68A now measures (151 kilometers) 94 miles long and 48 kilometers (30 miles) wide.
Using Satellites to Track the Movement of Iceberg A-68A
Researchers have continued to use satellite technology to track the movement of Iceberg A-68A as it moves in a northerly direction.
In the three years since Iceberg A-68A was calved, it has drifted towards South Georgia, a remote island in the southern Atlantic Ocean. NASA researchers used data from the Antarctic Iceberg Tracking Database to map the path of Iceberg A-68A.
The iceberg has moved over time with the ocean currents, with the path of the iceberg swirling in a circular path due to oceanic eddies. Iceberg A-68A has followed the path of more than 90% of icebergs as it passed through “Iceberg Alley”, a section of the Atlantic Ocean that reaches from the Antarctic Peninsula to Chile.
Researchers are continuing to monitor the path of Iceberg A68-A to see if it will get stuck in the shallow waters around South Georgia, actually strike the island, or float just past it. If the Iceberg gets stuck on or near the island, it can have a negative impact by blocking the foraging routes of the seals and penguins that hunt on and near South Georgia Island.
Brasher, B. R. (2020, April 24). Iceberg B-68C press release. U.S. National Ice Center Home. https://usicecenter.gov/PressRelease/IcebergA68C
Hansen, K. (2020, November 16). Iceberg A-68A nears South Georgia. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/147535/iceberg-a-68a-nears-south-georgia
Viñas, M. J., & Hansen, K. (2017, July 12). Antarctic ice shelf sheds massive iceberg. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/90557/antarctic-ice-shelf-sheds-massive-iceberg