This underwater ecosystem has remained undisturbed for millennia.
A SLOW START. In July 2017, an iceberg the size of Delaware detached from the Antarctic ice shelf. Over the next year, the iceberg simply chilled close to home. But now it’s on the move, and as it makes its way north, it’s giving scientists access to a never-before-studied ocean ecosystem.
ON THE MOVE. Satellite imagery taken over the past few months reveals that the iceberg, known as A68, has rotated about 90 degrees counterclockwise, and this movement will likely continue, according to polar oceanographer Mark Brandon.
“My guess is that A68 will continue rotating as it is now around that western point, until what is currently the northern edge collides with the Larsen C ice front,” he wrote in a blog post. “It has a spectacular amount of momentum and it’s not going to [be] stopped easily.”
As for what compelled the berg to start moving in the first place, glaciologist Martin O’Leary has a couple of theories.
“It might have been shaken loose by winds or ocean currents, or it might be that the natural thinning process (from both melting and the flow of the ice) has lifted the bottom of the iceberg off the seabed,” he told Earther. “In any case, it looks like the berg is now a lot more free to move about, so it will probably continue to rotate, and to move out to sea.”
AN UNDERWATER WONDERLAND. No one is entirely sure where A68 might end up. But researchers are most excited about the home the iceberg is vacating.
When A68 separated from the Antarctic ice shelf, it opened up a doorway into a pristine underwater ecosystem. Researchers predict this area of the ocean has remained undisturbed for some 120,000 years, but now that it’s exposed to sunlight and open-air conditions, there’s no telling what kinds of interesting changes could take place.
“You’ll have sunlight, you’ll have phytoplankton, and you’ll begin to get zooplankton and fish in there pretty quickly,” marine ecosystem researcher Phil Trathan told Live Science in October. “So, it will be sort of a chain reaction — as you get productivity happening then you’ll get more species coming in, and so there will be quite significant changes over relatively short time scales.”
Thanks to an international agreement signed in 2016, the area is off-limits for commercial fishing operations for at least two years, and maybe as many as 10. That means researchers could have a whole decade to study the newly exposed ecosystem and monitor any changes that take place in it now that A68 is on the move.
READ MORE: Last Year’s Colossal Antarctic Iceberg Has Started to Move at a Shocking Speed [Science Alert]