Massive iceberg headed towards Australia

Friday, December 11, 2009 - 11:31am

SYDNEY – Australian authorities Friday issued a shipping alert over a gigantic iceberg that is gradually approaching the country's southwest coast.

The Bureau of Meteorology said the once-in-a-century cliff of ice, which dislodged from Antarctica about a decade ago before drifting north, was being monitored using satellites.

"Mariners are advised that at 1200 GMT on December 9, an iceberg approximately 1,700 kilometres (1,054 miles) south-southwest of the West Australian coast was observed," it said, giving the iceberg's coordinates.

"The iceberg is 140 square kilometres in area — 19 kilometres long by eight kilometres wide."

Experts believe the iceberg — known as B17B — is likely to break up as it enters warmer waters nearer Australia, creating hundreds of smaller icebergs in a hazard to passing ships.

"It's still 1,700 kilometres away, so it's quite a long way away, it's not really on our doorstep yet but it's been heading steadily towards us," glaciologist Neal Young said Thursday.

Young earlier told AFP that an iceberg of that size had probably not been seen in the area since the days when 19th century clipper sailing ships plied the trade route between Britain and Australia.

The iceberg has been floating around Antarctica since shearing off the icey continent but had lately begun heading north because of ocean currents and weather conditions.

Its discovery comes after two other large icebergs were spotted further east, off Australia's Macquarie Island, followed by more than 100 smaller chunks heading towards New Zealand.

Young described the icebergs as uncommon, but said they could become more frequent if sea temperatures rise through global warming.