- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005

Will it be boom, growl or slowly crunch?

Scientists around the planet are following the Antarctic equivalent of a soap opera: A vast iceberg is poised to ram an imposing pier of ice at the very bottom of the Earth — a moment that researchers have billed “the collision of the century.”

But this is not any iceberg. This is B15-A, the world’s largest floating object — a piece of 100-year old ice the size of Long Island. Thanks to wind, tide and temperature, the big berg has come within striking distance of the Drygalski “ice tongue,” which is not just any ice tongue.

Discovered in 1902 by British explorers, the ice mass projects off Antarctica into the sea for some 60 miles. It’s also 600-feet thick, 17 miles wide and possibly 4,000 years old.

“We’ve been tracking it every day,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist Sean Helfrich, who pores over satellite photos of dueling ice entities at the National Ice Center in Maryland.

“There’s an international audience watching the fate of this berg. B15-A has been on a due-north track and is about 2 miles from Drygalski. A collision scenario is in play, and it’s something quite unusual to see,” Mr. Helfrich said.

The movements of icebergs is anything but anonymous. B15-A is monitored continually by U.S. and European satellites and researchers at nearby ice stations operated by the United States, Italy and New Zealand.

Things have gotten personal, however. Several Web cams now dot the broad berg — and surrounding lesser bergs — placed by curious and intrepid researchers from the University of Wisconsin and other institutions. “There were people walking on B15-A about a month ago,” Mr. Helfrich noted. Iceberg aficionados can check it online (https://uwamrc.ssec.wisc.edu/webcam.html).

Meanwhile, is a berg boom imminent? “It could be tomorrow. But on the other hand, B15-A could run aground and stop,” Mr. Helfrich said. “We’ve seen large bergs collide with nothing more than little calvings.” That’s iceman talk for small icebergs splitting off big icebergs.

B15-A, for example, “calved” from B-15 — a berg as big as Jamaica — five years ago. In mid-January last year, scientists with the European Space Agency predicted B15-A was poised to ram the Drygalski ice tongue in “the collision of the century.”

The unpredictable B15-A ran aground instead. But on Friday, satellite photos revealed it was afloat again — and on the move. Though there is drama associated with such events, the National Ice Center has yet to give the bergs anything more than a numerical destination.

“But if anyone wants to start naming them the way we name hurricanes, I’m all for it,” Mr. Helfrich added.

He did have an analogy for the event. “Well, it would be like a tractor trailer hitting a moving van.”

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