World’s largest iceberg on collision course with penguin colony island

An enormous iceberg measuring roughly the length of Delaware broke off an Antarctic ice shelf in 2017. Now, that iceberg is headed directly for South Georgia Island — threatening to devastate the fragile penguin colony that calls the island home.

Image for post
Image for post

The European Space Agency says the iceberg, called A68a, is on course to collide with the island after years of floating towards it due to ocean currents. A68a is currently less than 100 miles off the coast of the South Atlantic island — and scientists predict the collision could occur within days or weeks.

A collision threatens the unique wildlife that lives on the British overseas territory, including 1.3 million pairs of Chinstrap penguins — one of the world’s largest colonies — about 5 million seals, and 65 million breeding birds. If the iceberg anchors itself in place, it would block the local wildlife’s foraging routes, making it extremely difficult to find food.

“When you’re talking about penguins and seals during the period that’s really crucial to them — during pup- and chick-rearing — the actual distance they have to travel to find food (fish and krill) really matters,” Professor Geraint Tarling, an ecologist at British Antarctic Survey, said in a news release last month. “If they have to do a big detour, it means they’re not going to get back to their young in time to prevent them starving to death in the interim.”

The island is situated inside a Marine Protected Area, allowing countless species to thrive. In addition to life on the island, the iceberg also threatens marine life on the seafloor, including coral, plankton and sponges.

“Ecosystems can and will bounce back of course, but there’s a danger here that if this iceberg gets stuck, it could be there for 10 years,” Tarling said. “An iceberg has massive implications for where land-based predators might be able to forage.”

Not only would avoiding a collision protect the South Georgian wildlife, it would also bring benefits to the environment. Tarling said that, if the iceberg were to remain in the open ocean, it will help fertilize ocean plankton, which cascades up the food chain and draws in carbon from the atmosphere, hopefully offsetting human CO2 emissions.

According to NASA, the iceberg measures about 93 miles long and 30 miles wide — nearly the size of the island itself.

It is difficult for scientists to predict the movements of the iceberg over the coming days, as they are dictated by changing ocean currents and storms. But its proximity to the island has made the collision increasingly likely, although not inevitable, and government officials, the British Royal Air Force and scientists alike are all currently tracking the iceberg’s every move, along with the currents and winds that direct it.

The currents “still have the power to take this iceberg in one direction or another away from South Georgia,” Tarling told Reuters on Wednesday. “But it is really, really close, less than 50 kilometers (31 miles) away from the south shelf edge. That’s getting so close that it’s almost inevitable.”

This week, the British Royal Air Force released new images and video footage of the iceberg, which capture its monstrous size, as well as its many tunnels, cracks and fissures. It has diminished substantially in size in the last few years, and the images also show a large number of smaller icebergs in the surrounding waters.

Officials said it was nearly impossible to photograph the iceberg due to its massive size, with the exception of satellite imagery.

When A68a broke off the Larsen C Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula in July 2017, scientists expected the 1-trillion ton iceberg to break apart fairly quickly. While A68a has followed the path of other broken-off icebergs, its sheer size allowed it to survive longer than most, which traditionally break apart in warmer waters before reaching South Georgia.

The peninsula is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth, reaching a record high temperature of nearly 70 degrees Fahrenheit last February. Ice melt and collapse in the region will inevitably lead to disastrous higher sea levels worldwide.

It has been a bitter holiday season for the maker of foil-wrapped Hershey’s Kisses. For nearly a month, a battle has been raging between the Hershey chocolate company and the West African farmers who harvest many of its cocoa beans. And it appears that the long-disenfranchised farmers may have scored a rare win.

The dispute began in November, when cocoa industry traders noticed that an unnamed source had purchased so many cocoa beans in the futures market that prices rose by more than 30 percent.

The close-knit cocoa industry quickly suspected that the buyer was Hershey. But the Coffee and Cocoa Council and the Ghana Cocoa Board were more direct with their accusations when they wrote a letter Nov. 30 to Hershey titled “Abuse of the derivatives market to impoverish the West African farmer.” The groups wrote that they “have observed with great concern the actions taken by your company on the New York terminal” and accused Hershey of using “the exchange to take delivery of physical cocoa.”

“This is a clear squeeze on the ICE US Exchange and a clear indication of your intent to avoid the payment of the Living Income Differential — LID,” they said. The newly introduced LID requires chocolate companies to pay an extra $400 per ton of cocoa beans to address the grave poverty farmers face in West Africa, according to the letter.

The two groups, which are the source of roughly 70 percent of the world’s supply of cocoa beans, pushed back against Hershey for having made what they said was an improper purchase. Ivorian and Ghanaian cocoa regulators accused it in the letter of being “highly unethical and in conflict with the concept of sustainability,” referring to the company’s sustainability programs, which address problems in the industry like child labor abuses.

The letter said the LID aims “to improve the incomes of three million of West African cocoa farmers,” and as punishment, the groups threatened to bar Hershey from running any of the sustainability programs on which the company prides itself in their countries.

“Manipulation of the Futures market at the expense of Farmers’ incomes should be denounced in the strongest terms,” the cocoa regulators wrote.

By accusing Hershey of buying cocoa beans on an exchange, West African cocoa regulators suggested in their letter that Hershey would not be able to fulfill one of its major recent promises: It could no longer reassure chocolate lovers that the beans it bought on the exchange were not harvested by children, a problem the company had been earnestly addressing.

Asked for comment Dec. 1, Hershey spokesperson Jeff Beckham called the letter “misleading” and said it “jeopardizes” the sustainability programs Hershey is working on in Ivory Coast to combat child labor and agricultural exploitation. Beckham said Hershey recently bought some cocoa from farmers there and paid the LID.

Asked about allegations that Hershey had bought beans on the futures exchange, Beckham would not confirm or deny where Hershey’s recent cocoa purchases came from or whether they had come from the exchange.

“We don’t discuss our cocoa buying strategy. We’ve never said that we bought a large delivery off the exchange,” Beckham said. “That said, we have also bought cocoa from other origins around the world as part of our particular bean blend to achieve our unique Hershey’s chocolate flavor profile. And we will continue to do so. This longtime practice of sourcing cocoa from around the world should not be conflated with avoiding paying the LID.”

Beckham cautioned that if West Africa cuts ties with Hershey, the company would not be able to help farmers there in the future. He highlighted the company’s programs to help with “child labor monitoring and remediation, farmer training, environmental protection” and other issues.

“By cutting off industry sustainability programs, cocoa farmers will be negatively impacted, as they will no longer receive the benefits provided by our on-the-ground programs,” he said.

The dispute has troubled cocoa industry experts, among them Kristy Leissle, the author of “Cocoa” and a co-founder of the Cocoapreneurship Institute of Ghana, who closely follows the cocoa industry.

“I’d rather be supporting those programs, keeping them going, applauding them for the good work that they’re doing and encouraging more of them than trying to take away the possibility of doing that work,” Leissle said.

By Dec. 4, Hershey’s had reached an agreement with Ivory Coast that it would buy beans directly from farmers and pay the LID, according to a letter between Hershey and the Coffee Cocoa Council. Hershey confirmed that the letter, which was obtained by NBC News, was authentic.

By purchasing the beans from farmers directly and agreeing to pay the LID, Hershey has less need to buy beans indirectly on an exchange at cheaper prices. After Hershey executives held a videoconference Dec. 4 affirming the agreement with the board representing farmers in Ivory Coast, the council agreed to end its threat to suspend Hershey’s participation in the sustainability programs in Ivory Coast.

“This lifting of suspension follows your definitive commitment to pay the DRD [LID],” Coffee and Cocoa Council CEO Yves Koné wrote to the Hershey group. Hershey confirmed Monday that it will pay farmers the $400 LID in the future. It did not comment about the beans that the cocoa regulators accused it of buying on the exchange.

If Hershey did buy beans on the exchange to make chocolate bars and cocoa, it is unclear where those beans actually came from. Ghana also has not agreed to lift its ban on sustainability programs with Hershey. Beckham said Hershey executives planned to meet with the Ghana Cocoa Board to flesh out more details.

Sweet promises
The battle sheds light on a decadeslong problem in an industry riddled with child labor violations. A widely acclaimed documentary the BBC aired in 2000 first revealed just how prevalent the use of child labor had become. Nearly two decades later, a 2018 report about the cocoa industry in Ghana and Ivory Coast, published by the U.S. Labor Department, found that nearly 45 percent of children living in agricultural households worked in cocoa fields, a total of at least 1.6 million children.

The following year, the Harkin-Engel Protocol, often referred to as the Cocoa Protocol, was created to ensure that production of cocoa beans and chocolate followed international labor standards. The protocol laid out timelines for chocolate companies to follow the standards. Eight chocolate companies, including Hershey, signed it and agreed to follow the timelines.

But because the International Labor Organization said the companies were not meeting the deadline, it extended it until the end of this year. For chocolate to be legally sold under the U.S. fair trade system, the production of cocoa must be free of environmental and human rights abuses, specifically child labor.

Hershey Co. has shown some commitment to addressing child labor abuses. In 2018 and 2019, it had its suppliers adopt its child labor monitoring and remediation system. By tracking 69,988 children in Ghana and Ivory Coast, it discovered 4,616 children doing what it deemed “inappropriate” work and tried to address the problems, according to its website.

Broader problems
Hershey is not the only chocolate company trying to address child labor problems. In 2005, human rights lawyer Terrence Collingsworth sued Nestlé USA Inc. and Cargill Inc., representing six children who were trafficked from Burkina Faso and enslaved to work in the cocoa fields of Ghana and Ivory Coast. He was trying to hold the companies accountable for the exploitation of children on cocoa plantations. The case reached the Supreme Court on Dec. 1, and during oral arguments, some justices expressed doubt that the companies should be held accountable.

Collingsworth said that conditions for children in Ghana and Ivory Coast continue to be dire and that they have changed little since he took his first trip for the case in 2001. He said that in his most recent trip to Ivory Coast in 2019, he saw children as young as 8 work long hours and carry machetes to harvest cocoa. Collingsworth said that when he came across enslaved children, they scattered and hid, as they were instructed by their boss to avoid outsiders like Americans.

Child labor is too deeply ingrained in the culture because of farmers’ dire financial circumstances, Collingsworth said.

“These farmers are so poor that they are now reliant on child labor that is free, and Cargill and Nestlé and the others are likewise dependent on a system they created that has the cheapest possible labor,” he said.

Nestlé called child labor “unacceptable” and promised to source all of its cocoa through its Child Labor Monitoring and Remediation System program, which involves identifying children at risk, gathering data about children working in fields and providing educations to children who cultivate cocoa beans.

“Regardless of the outcome of this lawsuit, we remain committed to combatting child labor within the cocoa supply chain and addressing its root causes as part of the Nestlé Cocoa Plan and through international efforts,” a Nestlé spokesperson sad.

Cargill, which makes the Ambrosia, Merckens and Peter’s chocolate brands, among others, said in a statement that “any instance of a child performing work that is dangerous or that might harm their health or education is one too many.” It has also adopted a monitoring and remediation system, which it said has already “reached 58,000 farmers in the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon.” Cargill said it “recently invested $12.3 million toward cocoa sustainability and traceability programs that will create more jobs while enhancing the safety and well-being of farming families.”

Needed changes
Hershey’s latest actions have especially troubled cocoa industry experts who considered the LID a start to resolving some problems. Leissle said improving wages would be a start, because farmers now get only 3 percent of total chocolate sales.

“It’s about an old industry. There’s a lot that’s entrenched about it, including child labor, including poverty,” Leissle said. “The LID was put into place to correct a long-term injustice.”

Cocoa industry experts also say that under current conditions, farmers have little choice but to employ children. According to a UNICEF report titled “Children’s Rights in the Cocoa-Growing Communities of Côte d’Ivoire,” the average income of a cocoa farmer in West Africa is 50 cents to $1.25 a day, among the lowest in all producing regions. “Côte d’Ivoire” is Ivory Coast’s name in French.

The increased payments inevitably help the children. Amourlaye Touré, a founding member of the Ivorian Human Rights Movement, a leading rights-based organization in Ivory Coast, said the LID infuses money into a labor system in which children often work with harmful pesticides, miss school and starve.

“What’s not acceptable is the extreme poverty in which these small farmers are,” Touré said, “and the huge benefit international companies are making on cocoa.”

Ever since she was a child, Courtney Young loved signing and sending Christmas cards to family and friends. But as she got older and time became more precious, the number of cards she mailed each December dwindled. And last Christmas, Young said she mailed just 20 cards.

Then the pandemic hit.

“I expect to send out 150 to 200 cards this year, if not more,” Young, who is the head librarian at Colgate University in upstate New York, told NBC News. “I enjoy doing it. Actually, I’ve always enjoyed doing it. So I guess I am getting back to something that I used to do.”

She apparently has plenty of company.

“Our holiday sales are off to a strong start, further indicating the importance of meaningful connections in this unique year,” Lindsey Roy, chief marketing officer at Hallmark Cards, said in an email. “We’re seeing growth in our ornaments and gifts businesses so far, as well as early indicators that more people are buying and sending holiday cards this year.”

Their biggest selling card this season, she said, is a Christmas card that expresses a sentiment that millions of Americans cut off from the people they love can relate to, namely “wish we were together.”

“The cover says, ‘It would be so nice to wish you a Merry Christmas in person’,” Roy said. “And the inside reads, ‘But even though I can’t, just know that I’m thinking of you — now and all through the year’.”

Young said Hallmark is speaking her language.

“I feel that in the moment, it’s even more important to send something out to people, if only just to let them know that they are missed and appreciated,” she said. “I do tend to send out holiday cards, but this year I’ve been expanding it to people I work with, people I would run into at conferences, extending it beyond the usual group of people I send cards to.”

Young said even before the holidays, she surprised herself, as well as her friends, by sending actual birthday cards rather than simply calling or texting. She said it helped her ward off the feeling of isolation during the coronavirus crisis.

“It feels good to be able to do something good for other people, especially at this moment,” she said. “I think we need to be more purposeful about reaching out even as we are isolating. We don’t have these serendipitous moments when we can run into each other right now because of the pandemic.”

Emily Stern and Bob Bailey-Lemansky, who live in the Montclair, New Jersey area, have in seasons past sent holiday cards they designed themselves to friends and loved ones. But this year, the 75 or so cards they mail will have a design that Stern drew.

“This year has certainly been unusual, and we all hear about what a horror show 2020 has been,” Stern said in an email. “Our intention instead was to convey wishes of peace and hope for the holidays and year ahead, include winter and seasonal themes (as well as elements that reflect our year), and go the heartfelt route. At the same time, we felt it important to acknowledge the loss and impact caused by the pandemic.”

So, she drew a Picasso-inspired bird of peace and added the word “Hanukkah” in Hebrew, which she started studying this year. And with the help of Bailey-Lemansky, who is a part-time musician, she added the notes from the first line of the song “Richie and Ruben” by Fountains of Wayne.

“Among other painful losses, losing Adam Schlesinger hit us especially hard,” Stern said, referring to the band’s bass player and chief songwriter who died of Covid-19 earlier this year. He was 52.

As for “Richie and Ruben,” Stern said, “It has special meaning for us because it’s one of ‘our’ songs.”

Megan Carolan is also mailing out custom holidays cards this year, or rather she’s mailing out Christmas cards customized with drawings of trucks by her 3-year-old son.

“I got the idea to make the cards with my son after I unpacked my Christmas stuff and realized I had all these boxes of cards that I had barely used,” said Carolan, who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, and is expecting her second child in the spring. “It was partly an attempt at decluttering.”

Carolan said she has a big family and “all of us getting together this year is just not an option because of the pandemic.”

“My son is now old enough to be aware of what he is missing and decorating the cards is something we can do from home that still feels festive,” she said. “It’s also an activity that enables him to practice drawing and writing. So, in a way, it’s part of our virtual preschool. He gets to draw and color and personalize these cards. And who doesn’t want a customized Christmas card from a three-year-old?”

Carolan said they intend to mail out about 25 cards.

“I have been talking to some of the parents about how some of the old-school ways have come back because of the pandemic,” she said. “In a year when you have to celebrate Thanksgiving on Zoom, I think people appreciate getting an actual Christmas card. It’s a physical thing, a tangible thing.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store