Video shows research ship’s “incredibly lucky” encounter with world’s largest iceberg as it drifts out of Antarctica

Britain’s polar research vessel has crossed paths with the world’s largest iceberg – an “incredibly lucky” encounter that allowed scientists to collect seawater samples around the colossal mountain as it drifts out of Antarctic waters, British Antarctic Survey said Monday. The sighting came just days after scientists confirmed the iceberg was “on the move” for the first time in 37 years.

That RRS Sir David Attenboroughwho is on his way to Antarctica for his first scientific mission, passed the mega iceberg known as A23a Friday near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The investigation released dramatic video taken by the ship’s crew, including drone footage that showed a pod of killer whales swimming next to the massive iceberg.

The iceberg – three times the size of New York City and more than twice the size of Greater London – had been grounded for more than three decades in the Weddell Sea after it split from Antarctica’s Filchner Ice Shelf in 1986. Before its calving in 1986 the colossal iceberg hosted a Soviet research station.

It began drifting in recent months and has now moved into the Southern Ocean, aided by winds and ocean currents. Scientists say it is now likely to be swept into “iceberg alley,” a common route for icebergs to flow toward the subantarctic island of South Georgia.

“It is incredibly fortunate that the iceberg’s route out of the Weddell Sea sat directly across our planned path and that we had the right team on board to take advantage of this opportunity,” said Andrew Meijers, chief scientist aboard the research vessel.

“We are fortunate that navigating A23a has not impacted on the tight times of our science mission, and it is amazing to see this huge rock in person – it stretches as far as the eye can see,” he added.

Laura Taylor, a scientist working on the ship, said the team took samples of ocean surface water around the iceberg’s route to help determine what life could form around it and how the iceberg and others like it affect carbon in the ocean .

“We know that these giant icebergs can provide nutrients to the waters they pass through and create thriving ecosystems in otherwise less productive areas. What we don’t know is what difference particular icebergs, their scale and their origin can make to that process . ” she said.

Great Britain Antarctic Iceberg
This handout photo provided by the British Antarctic Survey shows a view of the A23a iceberg from the RRS Sir David Attenborough, Antarctica, 1 December 2023.

Andrew Meijers/AP

A23a’s movement comes about 10 months after a massive chunk of Antarctica’s Brunt Ice Shelf — a the size of two New York cities – got away. The Brunt Ice Shelf lies across the Weddell Sea from the site of the Larsen C Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula. Last year, the Larsen C ice shelf, roughly the size of New York City and long thought to be stable, collapsed into the sea.

RRS Sir David Attenborough, named after the British naturalist, is on a 10-day science voyage, part of an $11.3 million project to investigate how Antarctic ecosystems and sea ice drive global ocean cycles of carbon and nutrients.

The British Antarctic Survey said their findings will help improve understanding of how climate change affects the Southern Ocean and the organisms that live there.

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