Wait a Minute, How Big is that Iceberg?

Comparing NYC to Luxembourg, by way of iceberg A-68

Iceberg A-68 is slowly drifting towards the open sea. Dubbed the 'monster berg', A-68 broke off from the Larsen C ice shelf on the Antarctic peninsula in July 2017, reducing its size by about 12%. Recent satellite images show the gap between the new iceberg and the remaining ice shelf is widening. 

At present (i.e. mid-November 2017), it is still lingering close to the ice shelf from which it calved. Eventually, it will most likely drift north through the Weddell Sea into the Atlantic, towards South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. In months (or years) to come, it may prove an obstacle to shipping – even after it inevitably breaks up into smaller parts.

A-68 is not the first massive iceberg to calve from the region. In January 1995, a large part of the Larsen A ice shelf collapsed, and in March 2002, the same happened at Larsen B. The events have been linked to warmer temperatures in the region.

What's special about the latest collapse, is the size of the iceberg. At around 6,000 sq. km (app. 2,300 sq. mi), A-68 is one of the biggest icebergs ever recorded (1). It weighs about one trillion tonnes.

Huge, unfamiliar objects like A-68 need some context for us to understand their true size. Enter... Wales. “The size of Wales” is a recurrent measure of geographic size in news reports, often used to give an idea of the area of rainforest destroyed, for example (2). As shown on this map, the world's largest iceberg du jour is about a quarter the size of the British principality. 

Image taken here from the New Scientist.

But Wales was just the beginning of it. Since the interest in A-68 was global, a curious phenomenon occurred: the iceberg was compared to areas from around the world, providing an insight into the relative sizes of some of the world's more notable geographies. 

Depending on your local news outlet, A-68 is the size of Delaware, seven times New York City, four times Greater London, twice the size of Luxembourg, twice the volume of Lake Erie, and long enough to cover the distance between the Australian cities of Newcastle and Wollongong.

Image taken here from stuff.co.nz.

The BBC helpfully places the iceberg next to Greater London (indeed a quarter the size of the berg), Hawaii's Big Island (about an iceberg and a half, or seven times Greater London), and Cyprus (an iceberg and a third, or one Big Island minus a Greater London, or thereabouts).

Image taken here from BBC News.

USA Today even produced a slide show, comparing the iceberg to a number of famous, smaller landmarks. Put next to each other, the slides give insight into the relative sizes of Los Angeles (close to seven and a half times Washington DC), the Grand Canyon (roughly twice the size of Luxembourg) and the Great Salt Lake (bigger than Long Island), among others. 

Images taken here from USA Today.

Climate Central has performed a similar exercise, but chose to roll up the iceberg – all 277 cubic miles of it – into a giant iceball, plonking it down on various areas of the U.S., where it towers menacingly like an alien craft come to destroy the earth. See the eight-mile-wide globe of frozen terror crush Manhattan, Miami, Chicago, Denver and San Francisco – while neither Mount Rainier nor the Grand Canyon manage to reduce the menace of its size. 

Images found here on Climate Central.

 If you live in Canada – the second-largest country in the world – size comparisons such as these may appeal less to the imagination, which is why the National Post came up with a frame of reference that is easily understandable to anyone with a rudimentary grasp of Canadian geography: the iceberg is slightly larger than Canada's smallest province: Prince Edward Island. To make the comparison even easier, P.E.I. is also floats in the ocean. 

Image found here at the National Post.

Bringing some much needed cartographic conformity to these various comparison maps, the German newspaper Berliner Morgenpost has produced an interactive tool that allows you to place an A-68-sized blot over any part of the world, showing you how much of your neck of the woods would be covered by the giant iceberg. 

Let's wish A-68 and this tool a long life: long enough to take over from Wales as the standard reference for geographic size. And perhaps one day soon, it will be areas of the rainforest the size of A-68 that will be lost forever, finally relieving Wales from the ecological shame-by-association. 

Strange Maps #849

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

(1) The biggest iceberg ever recorded was B-15, which calved off the Ross ice shelf in Antarctica in March 2000. Measuring 295 by 37 km (183 by 23 miles), it had an area of 11,000 sq. km (4,200 sq mi), which is larger than Jamaica. By 2005, it had broken up into smaller icebergs, some of which drifted past New Zealand in 2006.

(2) One charity is determined to turn this rather negative connotation on its head, and is raising funds to save an area of rainforest twice the size of Wales. Its name, of course: Size of Wales. Another frequently used measure is “the size of Belgium” - which, to be precise, is 1.47 times the size of Wales.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.