Huge iceberg breaks free, alters the Antarctic map

By Lee Dye, Times Science Writer
Copyright 1987 Los Angeles Times
November 6, 1987

A monstrous iceberg nearly 100 miles long has broken loose from Antarctica, dramatically altering the frozen shoreline where famed explorer Richard E. Byrd established his Little America base camp nearly six decades ago, the National Science Foundation reported Thursday.

The iceberg, twice the size of Rhode Island, broke off from the Ross Ice Shelf along the Bay of Whales. Scientists at the McMurdo Station 450 miles away said the iceberg is so huge that its departure will eliminate the bay as a geological feature.

"The size of the iceberg in human terms is staggering," Guy G. Guthridge, an official with the foundation, said in announcing the discovery, which was confirmed by satellite photos. "If you could somehow transport it to California and melt it, it would supply all the water needs of Los Angeles for the next 675 years," he said.

The iceberg is believed to be about 98 miles long and 25 miles wide, giving it an area of about 2,450 square miles.

Icebergs break off from Antarctica all the time, but this chunk represents two to three times the normal amount of ice that breaks free in a year, officials said.

"That's a biggie," said James H. Zumberg, president of the University of Southern California and an expert on the antarctic ice fields. "It's probably the largest in recent time."

It's not likely to pose much of a problem for ships, he noted, because "it's large enough for the ships to see it."

And while it may be on the move, it is not likely to get here -- or anywhere else -- soon.

Scientists at McMurdo are tracking the iceberg, but its massive size means it will move very slowly as it eases north. In most cases even the largest icebergs melt before they become a navigational hazard, according to Barclay Kamb, provost at Caltech and a geologist who specializes in glacial sciences.

"The wind is the primary agent" that drives all icebergs, "but they don't move fast because they are so extensive and so deeply rooted in the ocean," Kamb said.
750 Feet Thick

The National Science Foundation estimated Thursday that the recently discovered iceberg is at least 750 feet thick, and about 90% of that would hang below the surface, thus minimizing the driving force of the winds.

The Ross Ice Shelf, a giant sheet of floating ice from which the iceberg broke off, extends down from the rocky mainland and is "about the size of the state of Texas," according to Zumberg, a glaciologist who has studied the ice shelf since 1957.

"The ice shelf itself is moving out to sea," pushed by two glaciers on the mainland, and "as the tides and the waves and the movement continues, those chunks break off and float out to sea," Zumberg said.

In 1972, he added, "my base camp went to sea" when the ice on which it was built broke off. The camp was unmanned at the time.

Zumberg described Antarctica as "the birthplace of most of the icebergs in the world." The other primary source is Greenland, but the two regions produce very different icebergs. The icebergs from Greenland are rugged and mountainous, whereas those from the South Pole are flat, he said.
Giant of 1978

Kamb said icebergs usually remain near the coast of Antarctica, but that has not always been the case.

In 1978, a giant iceberg that was nearly as big as Orange County was deemed a hazard to the few ships that traverse the South Atlantic -- more than a decade after it broke off from Antarctica. In time, the warmer waters melted it.

About the only danger the new iceberg poses is to ships trying to reach Antarctica with supplies for the various research facilities on the frozen continent, Kamb said.

The ice shelf from which the iceberg broke off was formed over many years from rainfall and snow that was pushed down the slopes from the rocky mainland and onto the sea. As a result, icebergs have long tantalized a thirsty world because they represent an enormous source of fresh water, except they are in the wrong place.

That has led some scientists to speculate that it may be possible to tow giant icebergs to parched regions of the Earth, supplying fresh water, refrigerants and, undoubtedly, a monumental tourist attraction.

Saudi Arabia's King Khaled was so intrigued with the idea that he funded research into the possibility of towing icebergs to the Middle East, where their water could be as valuable as oil. A French engineering firm concluded that it could be done -- but that it would take six to 12 months and cost about $80 million.
Army Studied Idea

A U.S. Army study reached the same conclusion, but noted that such an operation would require the development of "super-tugs."

For some, that area of research has led to major disappointment.

Researchers at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica got so caught up in the concept that some split off in the mid-1970s and formed their own company to promote the idea. None of them could be located Thursday, and some of their former colleagues said the idea was not taken seriously.

"It got laughed off the face of the Earth," said John Farquhar, a computer scientist who now lives in Omaha. Farquhar, who was friends with some of those involved, said that "people felt it was the kind of idea that shouldn't be studied by a place like RAND."

"But those who were familiar with it thought that it made sense," he said in a telephone interview. "The physics were correct."

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