Antarctica

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A huge ice block has broken off from western Antarctica into the Weddell Sea, becoming the largest iceberg in the world and earning the name A-76.

It is the latest in a series of large ice blocks to dislodge in a region acutely vulnerable to climate change, although scientists said in this case it appeared to be part of a natural polar cycle.

Slightly larger than the Spanish island of Majorca, A-76 had been monitored by scientists since May 13 when it began to separate from the Ronne Ice Shelf, according to the US National Ice Center.

The iceberg, measuring around 170 kilometres (105 miles) long and 25 kilometres wide, with an area of 4,320 square kilometres is now floating in the Weddell Sea.

It joins previous world's largest title holder A-23A—approximately 3,880 sq km in size—which has remained in the same area since 1986.

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Biologists say the inadvertent discovery of sea life on a boulder underneath an Antarctic ice shelf challenges our understanding of how organisms can live in environments far from sunlight.

The team drilled through the 900-metre-thick Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf and dropped a camera down the hole in search of mud on the seabed. To their surprise, the camera revealed a boulder ringed by animals. Video footage appear to show 16 sponges, accompanied by 22 unidentified animals which could include barnacles. It is the first time such immobile life has been found beneath an Antarctic ice sheet.

“There’s all sorts of reasons they shouldn’t be there,” says Huw Griffiths at the British Antarctic Survey, who analysed the footage. He thinks the animals, which are likely filter feeders, survive on nutrients carried in the -2°C water. The conundrum is they are so far from obvious nutrient sources, given that the boulder is located 260 kilometres from the open water at the front of the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf where photosynthetic organisms can survive.

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