Exclusive: FBI agents raid headquarters of major U.S. body broker

Exclusive: FBI agents raid headquarters of major U.S. body broker

By John Shiffman and Brian Grow

PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) – Federal agents have seized records from a national company that solicits thousands of Americans to donate their bodies to science each year, then profits by dissecting the parts and distributing them for use by researchers and educators.

The search warrant executed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation at MedCure Inc headquarters here on November 1 is sealed, and the bureau and the company declined to comment on the nature of the FBI investigation. But people familiar with the matter said the inquiry concerns the manner in which MedCure distributes body parts acquired from its donors.

MedCure is among the largest brokers of cadavers and body parts in the United States. From 2011 through 2015, documents obtained under public-record laws show, the company received more than 11,000 donated bodies and distributed more than 51,000 body parts to medical industry customers nationally. In a current brochure, the company says that 80,000 additional people have pledged to donate their bodies to MedCure when they die.

FBI spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele confirmed the day-long search of the 25,000-square-foot facility, but declined to comment further because the matter is under seal. A person familiar with the matter said that FBI agents took records from MedCure but did not remove human remains.

The search warrant, though sealed, signals that an FBI investigation of MedCure has reached an advanced stage. To obtain a search warrant to seize records, rather than demand them via subpoena, FBI agents must provide a detailed affidavit to a U.S. magistrate with evidence to support probable cause that crimes have been committed and that related records may be on the premises.

“MedCure is fully cooperating with the FBI, and looks forward to resolving whatever questions the government may have about their business,” said Jeffrey Edelson, a Portland attorney who represents the company. “Out of respect for the integrity of the process, we do not believe that further comment is appropriate at this time.”

It is illegal to profit from the sale of organs destined for transplant, such as hearts and kidneys. But as a Reuters series detailed last month, it is legal in most U.S. states to sell donated whole bodies or their dissected parts, such as arms and heads, for medical research, training and education.

Commonly known as body brokers, these businesses often profit by targeting people too poor to afford a burial or cremation. Reuters documented how people who donate their bodies to science may be unwittingly contributing to commerce. Few states regulate the body donation industry, and those that do so have different rules, enforced with varying degrees of thoroughness. Body parts can be bought with ease in the United States. A Reuters reporter bought two heads and a spine from a Tennessee broker with just a few emails.

MedCure, founded in 2005, is based outside Portland, Oregon, and has offices in Nevada, Florida, Rhode Island and Missouri, as well as Amsterdam, the Netherlands. At some locations, including the one near Portland, MedCure provides training labs for doctors and health professionals to practice surgical techniques. MedCure also sends body parts and technicians to assist with medical conferences across the country.

MedCure is accredited by the American Association of Tissue Banks, a national organization that primarily works with transplant tissue banks. The broker is also licensed by the state health departments in Oregon and New York, among the few states that conduct inspections. According to Oregon state health records, officials renewed MedCure’s license in January, following a routine on-site review.

The Reuters series, “The Body Trade,” can be read at https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-bodies-brokers/

(Edited by Michael Williams)

Exclusive: U.S. needs to improve oversight of labs handling dangerous pathogens – report

Exclusive: U.S. needs to improve oversight of labs handling dangerous pathogens - report

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – A year-long audit of the program overseeing U.S. labs that handle lethal pathogens such as Ebola and anthrax found overworked safety inspectors, an absence of independent review and weak biosafety protections that could expose lab workers and the public to harm, a government report will say on Tuesday.

The report by the Government Accountability Office to Congress followed a series of mishaps in which dangerous pathogens were inadvertently released. The report, seen by Reuters, concluded that the Federal Select Agent Program needs an overhaul.

The GAO audited laboratory safety oversight following errors that could have exposed dozens of people to live anthrax bacteria and the deadly toxin ricin. Its report will guide questioning of officials before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight subcommittee on Thursday.

The Federal Select Agent Program is jointly run by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

According to the report, a chief concern is that the program is too focused on physical security measures, such as preventing theft from labs, and needs to focus more on biosafety issues that could protect researchers and the wider public from errors.

The GAO report also noted that many of the labs using high-risk pathogens for research belong to either CDC or the USDA, and recommended that Congress consider setting up a fully independent oversight body to remove potential conflicts of interest.

“The Select Agent Program does not fully meet our key elements of effective oversight,” the report stated.

Safety lapses in CDC labs captured headlines in 2014 when scientists at a high-level biosecurity lab did not properly inactivate anthrax bacteria before sending the material to labs with fewer safeguards. More than 80 scientists were exposed to potentially live anthrax, though no one fell ill.

In the months that followed, the Food and Drug Administration disclosed the discovery of decades-old vials of smallpox in a storage closet, while a U.S. Army lab erroneously shipped live anthrax to nearly 200 labs worldwide.

To address concerns of conflict of interest, CDC and APHIS have made structural changes to increase the program’s independence, but according to the GAO report, the program has not undergone a comprehensive risk management review, even as problems with lab safety continue to come to light.

As recently as last November, the Department of Homeland Security found a private lab inadvertently shipped ricin – a lethal poison – to one of its training centers on multiple occasions in 2011.

“Considering the type of research we’re talking about, we should have a much more robust, systematic oversight approach. That seems to be lacking,” said an aide to the House committee who declined to be identified.

To avoid conflicts of interest, inspections of APHIS laboratories are supposed to be carried out by the CDC, and inspections of CDC labs are to be carried out by APHIS. But the report revealed that at least three times in 2015, APHIS inspected its own laboratories, partly because there is no process in place to ensure compliance.

The report also cited excessive workloads for inspectors, which delay inspection reports and make it harder to retain personnel. In some cases, inspectors have been assigned to tasks outside of their expertise. For example, the GAO found that an APHIS physical security expert was asked to inspect ventilation systems – a critical protection against the accidental release of dangerous pathogens.

Short of a move by Congress to create an independent oversight agency, GAO recommended that CDC and APHIS officials conduct a risk assessment of the Select Agent Program and how it handles conflicts of interest. It also recommended that program officials shift inspection priorities to focus on high-risk activities in labs and develop a joint plan to train and hire inspectors.

The Health and Human Services Department, which oversees CDC, and the USDA, which runs APHIS, agreed with many of these recommendations, according to the report. Officials from the CDC and APHIS will testify at the Thursday hearing.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Michele Gershberg)

Senators push bill requiring warrant for U.S. data under spy law

Senators push bill requiring warrant for U.S. data under spy law

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A bipartisan group of at least 10 U.S. senators plans to introduce on Tuesday legislation that would substantially reform aspects of the National Security Agency’s warrantless internet surveillance program, according to congressional aides.

The effort, led by Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Rand Paul, would require a warrant for queries of data belonging to any American collected under the program. The bill’s introduction is likely to add uncertainty to how Congress will renew a controversial portion of a spying law due to expire on Dec. 31.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is considered by U.S. intelligence officials to be among their most vital tools used to combat national and cyber security threats and help protect American allies.

It allows U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on and store vast amounts of digital communications from foreign suspects living outside the United States.

The surveillance program, classified details of which were exposed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, also incidentally scoops up communications of Americans, including if they communicate with a foreign target living overseas.

Those communications can then be subject to searches without a warrant, including by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a practice that the USA Rights Act authored by Wyden and Paul would end.

The measure is expected to be introduced with support from a wide berth of civil society groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and FreedomWorks, a Wyden spokesman said.

It would renew Section 702 for four years with additional transparency and oversight provisions, such as allowing individuals to more easily raise legal challenges against the law and expand the oversight jurisdiction of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a government privacy watchdog.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House of Representatives earlier this month introduced legislation seeking to add privacy protections to Section 702, including a partial restriction to the FBI’s ability to access U.S. data when seeking evidence of a crime.

But that was criticized by privacy groups as too narrow.

Separately, the Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to privately vote on Tuesday on a bill to reauthorize Section 702 that privacy advocates say will lack their reform priorities.

Wyden sent a letter on Monday urging committee leaders to allow a public vote, saying the bill “will have enormous impact on the security, liberty, and constitutional rights of the American people” and should be debated in the open.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Orionid Meteor Shower, at its peak, will light up the skies this weekend

Orionid Meteor Shower, at its peak, will light up the skies this weekend

By Shirette Stockdall

The Heavens will be providing Earth with a beautiful show this weekend, the peak of the Orionid Meteor Shower. Multiple sources, including Accuweather, USA Today, and ABC 7, state that Saturday morning (just before dawn) will be the ideal time to watch the meteor shower. However, the meteor shower will still be visible Saturday and Sunday from midnight until dawn.

The eastern horizon should have the best views of meteor shower, but NASA reports that the entire Earth will be able to view the event. Bruce McClure of EarthSky told USA Today that the darkest areas should see a maximum of 10-15 meteors per hour. Also, no special equipment is needed to see the shooting stars.

The Orionid Meteor Shower happens as a result of Earth’s orbit intersecting with the path of the legendary Halley’s Comet, last seen in 1986. While Halley’s Comet is still very far away and won’t be seen again until 2061, it leaves behind debris and dust that strikes Earth’s atmosphere.

If the meteor shower originates from Halley’s Comet, why is it named the Orionid Meteor Shower? Despite its source, the meteor shower is named after the constellation, Orion, because the comets seem to radiate from Orion. Space.com suggests looking 30 degrees above Orion’s sword (or club, depending on the lore) to see the most shooting stars. Your fist at arm’s length is approximately the equivalent of 10 degrees, so measure three fist lengths above Orion.

Accuweather reports that clear skies are in the forecast for most of the Southwest, but the central and northwestern regions of the U.S. may have clouds blocking their views of the meteor shower.

If you do miss this weekend’s meteor shower, the Leonids Meteor Shower will take place in November and the Geminds Meteor Shower will light up the sky in December.

California prepares for the ‘big one’ with earthquake drill

California prepares for the 'big one' with earthquake drill

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Millions of Californians were due on Thursday to simultaneously drop to the floor, clamber under tables and cover their heads for a minute or two of imagined seismic turmoil during the latest annual “Great ShakeOut” earthquake drill.

The event, first held nine years ago in the Los Angeles area, was organized by scientists and emergency officials as part of a campaign to prepare the region’s inhabitants for a catastrophic quake that experts say is inevitable and long overdue.

The exercise has since expanded to encompass all of California and most other states, as well as some other countries, including Canada and Japan. In many places, entire school districts, colleges, workplaces and municipalities have registered to take part.

In keeping with the drill’s quake-survival message, participants are urged to “drop, cover and hold” – meaning get down on hands and knees, cover their heads and necks under a sturdy piece of furniture and hang on until the hypothetical shaking stops.

To help participants get into the mood, organizers have even prepared audio recordings of quake-rumbling sounds that can be downloaded, with or without narration, and played during the drill.

Such rehearsals are especially important in regions such as Southern California, where “it’s not a matter of if but when that catastrophic earthquake will strike,” said Ken Kondo, spokesman for Los Angeles County’s emergency management office.

One of the larger gatherings planned is to be held at the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park near downtown Los Angeles.

Following the drill, the city fire department, American Red Cross, police and other agencies will stage a full-scale earthquake-response exercise, setting up a medical triage area, emergency shelters and mass-feeding operation, Kondo said.

That drill is based on the premise of a magnitude 7.8 quake striking the southern end of the San Andreas Fault, a subterranean chasm between two massive plates of the Earth’s crust that extends hundreds of miles across California.

The scenario was devised by geophysicists and engineers who envisioned a calamity that would leave 1,800 people dead, 50,000 injured and 250,000 homeless while severing highways, power lines, pipelines, railroads, communications networks and aqueducts, and toppling some 1,500 buildings.

As of late Wednesday, nearly 53 million participants were registered for ShakeOut drills worldwide, including more than 10.2 million in California, organizers said.

The exercise is set to begin at 10:19 a.m. local time, corresponding with the date of the event.

A rupture of the San Andreas Fault in northern California caused the massive quake that laid waste to San Francisco in 1906. The last “big one” to strike south of the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles was 300 years ago. The average interval between such quakes in that region is just 150 years, experts say.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Solar eclipse presents first major test of power grid in renewable era

FILE PHOTO -- An array of solar panels are seen in Oakland, California, U.S. on December 4, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Ruthy Munoz

HOUSTON (Reuters) – As Monday’s total solar eclipse sweeps from Oregon to South Carolina, U.S. electric power and grid operators will be glued to their monitoring systems in what for them represents the biggest test of the renewable energy era.

Utilities and grid operators have been planning for the event for years, calculating the timing and drop in output from solar, running simulations of the potential impact on demand, and lining up standby power sources. It promises a critical test of their ability to manage a sizeable swing in renewable power.

Solar energy now accounts for more than 42,600 megawatts (MW), about 5 percent of the U.S.’s peak demand, up from 5 MW in 2000, according to the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), a group formed to improve the nation’s power system in the wake of a 1964 blackout. When the next eclipse comes to the United States in 2024, solar will account for 14 percent of the nation’s power, estimates NERC.

For utilities and solar farms, the eclipse represents an opportunity to see how well prepared their systems are to respond to rapid swings in an era where variable energy sources such as solar and wind are climbing in scale and importance.

Power companies view Monday’s event as a “test bed” on how power systems can manage a major change in supply, said John Moura, director of reliability assessment and system analysis at the North American Electric Reliability Corp.

“It has been tested before, just not at this magnitude,” adds Steven Greenlee, a spokesman for the California Independent System Operator (CISO), which controls routing power in the nation’s most populous state.

CISO estimates that at the peak of the eclipse, the state’s normal solar output of about 8,800 MW will be reduced to 3,100 MW and then surge to more than 9,000 MW when the sun returns.

CISO’s preparation includes studying how German utilities dealt with a 2015 eclipse in that country. Its review prompted the grid overseer to add an additional 200 MW to its normal 250 MW power reserves.

“We’ve calculated that during the eclipse, that solar will ramp off at about 70 MW per minute,” said Greenlee. “And then we’ll see the solar rolling back at about 90 MW per minute or more.”

Power utilities say the focus will be on managing a rapid drop off and accommodate the solar surge post the eclipse. Utility executives say they do not expect any interruption in service, but are prepared to ask customers to pare usage if a problem arises.”We want to assure our customers that we have secured enough resources to meet their energy needs, even with significantly less solar generation on hand,” said Caroline Winn, chief operating officer at utility San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

In the Eastern United States, utilities will have more time to watch the results of their Western counterparts. PJM Interconnection, which coordinates electricity transmission among 13 states from Michigan to North Carolina, says non-solar sources such as hydro and fossil fuel can easily supplant the 400 MW to 2,500 MW solar loss, depending on the cloud cover.

For small-scale solar providers, the eclipse is a drop in the revenue bucket. Ron Strom, a North Carolina real estate developer, sells the power from a 58 kilovolt system atop a commercial property in Chapel Hill to Duke Energy.

“The event may cost me eighteen cents or thereabouts if my panels don’t produce solar for three hours,” said Strom.

(Additional reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; editing by Diane Craft)

Millions of Americans to gaze upon Monday’s once-in-a-lifetime eclipse

Millions of Americans to gaze upon Monday's once-in-a-lifetime eclipse

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – Twilight will fall at midday on Monday, stars will glimmer and birds will roost in an eerie stillness as millions of Americans and visitors witness the first total solar eclipse to traverse the United States from coast to coast in 99 years.

The sight of the moon’s shadow passing directly in front of the sun, blotting out all but the halo-like solar corona, may draw the largest live audience for a celestial event in human history. When those watching via broadcast and online media are factored into the mix, the spectacle will likely smash records.

“It will certainly be the most observed total eclipse in history,” astronomer Rick Fienberg of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) said last week.

The eclipse begins its cross-country trajectory over the Pacific Coast of Oregon in late morning. It will reach South Carolina’s Atlantic shore some 90 minutes later.

The total eclipse of the sun is considered one of the most spell-binding phenomena in nature but it rarely occurs over a wide swath of land, let alone one of the world’s most heavily populated countries at the height of summer.

In terms of audience potential, it is hard to top the United States, with its mobile and affluent population, even though the direct path is mostly over rural areas, towns and small cities. The largest is Nashville, Tennessee, a city of 609,000 residents.

Even so the advent of social media and inexpensive high-tech optics have boosted public awareness, assuring what many U.S. experts predict will be unprecedented viewership for the so-called “Great American Eclipse.”

Some might take issue with that prediction, citing a solar eclipse visible over parts of India, Nepal, Bangladesh and central China in July 2009. National Geographic estimated 30 million people in Shanghai and Hangzhou alone were in its path that day.

On Monday, the deepest part of the shadow, or umbra, cast by the moon will fall over a 70-mile-wide (113-km-wide), 2,500-mile-long (4,000-km-long) “path of totality” traversing 14 states. The 12 million people who live there can view the eclipse at its fullest merely by walking outside and looking up, weather permitting.

LIVESTREAMING AND PRICE-GOUGING

Some 200 million Americans reside within a day’s drive of the totality zone, and as many as 7 million, experts say, are expected to converge on towns and campgrounds along the narrow corridor for the event. Many are attending multi-day festivals featuring music, yoga and astronomy lectures.

Millions more could potentially watch in real time as the eclipse is captured by video cameras mounted on 50 high-altitude balloons and streamed online in a joint project between NASA and Montana State University. A partial eclipse will appear throughout North America.

Adding further to the excitement is the wide availability of affordable solar-safe sunglasses produced by the millions and selling so fast that suppliers were running out of stock.

The owner of one leading manufacturer reported price gouging by second-hand dealers who were buying up large supplies in and reselling them over the internet at a huge mark-up.

Not all the hoopla will unfold on dry land. Welsh pop singer Bonnie Tyler is slated to perform her 1983s hit single “Total Eclipse of the Heart” aboard a cruise liner as the vessel sails into the path of totality from Florida on Monday.

Back on the ground, forest rangers, police and city managers in the total eclipse zone are bracing for a crush of travelers they fear will cause epic traffic jams and heighten wildfire hazards.

“Imagine 20 Woodstock festivals occurring simultaneously across the nation,” Michael Zeiler, an AAS advisory panel member wrote on his website, GreatAmericanEclipse.com, referring to the famously chaotic 1969 outdoor rock extravaganza in upstate New York.

Zeiler, an avowed “eclipse chaser” who made the 650-mile (1,046 km) drive from his New Mexico home to Wyoming for a choice view, said South Carolina is likely to see the greatest influx as the destination state closest to the entire U.S. Eastern seaboard.

Monday’s event will be the first total solar eclipse spanning the entire continental United States since 1918 and the first visible anywhere in the Lower 48 states in 38 years.

The next one over North America is due in just seven years, in April 2024.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank McGurty and Sandra Maler)

U.S. scientists able to alter genes of human embryos

Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, Professor at Salk Institute's Gene Expression Laboratory and Jun Wu, Salk staff Scientist are pictured in this handout photo obtained by Reuters, August 2, 2017. Salk Institute/Handout via REUTERS

By Deena Beasley

U.S. scientists have succeeded in altering the genes of a human embryo to correct a disease-causing mutation, making it possible to prevent the defect from being passed on to future generations.

The milestone, reported in a paper released online August 2 in Nature, was confirmed last week by Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), which collaborated with the Salk Institute and Korea’s Institute for Basic Science to use a technique known as CRISPR-Cas9 to correct a genetic mutation for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Until now, published studies using the technique had been done in China with mixed results.

CRISPR-Cas9 works as a type of molecular scissors that can selectively trim away unwanted parts of the genome, and replace it with new stretches of DNA.

“We have demonstrated the possibility to correct mutations in a human embryo in a safe way and with a certain degree of efficiency,” said Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a professor in Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory and a co-author of the study.

To increase the success rate, his team introduced the genome editing components along with sperm from a male with the targeted gene defect during the in vitro fertilization process. They found that the embryo used the available healthy copy of the gene to repair the mutated part.

The Salk/OHSU team also found that its gene correction did not cause any detectable mutations in other parts of the genome – a major concern for gene editing.

Still, the technology was not 100 percent successful. It increased the number of repaired embryos from 50%, which would have occurred naturally, to 74%.

The embryos, tested in the laboratory, were allowed to develop for only a few days.

“There is still much to be done to establish the safety of the methods, therefore they should not be adopted clinically,” Robin Lovell-Badge, a professor at London’s Francis Crick Institute who was not involved in the study, said in a statement.

‘UTMOST CAUTION’

Washington’s National Academy of Sciences (NAS) earlier this year softened its previous opposition to the use of gene editing technology in human embryos, which has raised concerns it could be used to create so-called designer babies. There is also a fear of introducing unintended mutations into germline cells.

“No one is thinking about this because it is practically impossible at this point,” Izpisua Belmonte said. “This is still very basic research … let alone something as complex as what nature has done for millions and millions of years of evolution.”

An international group of 11 organizations, including the American Society of Human Genetics and Britain’s Wellcome Trust, on Wednesday issued a policy statement recommending against genome editing that culminates in human implantation and pregnancy, while supporting publicly funded research into its potential clinical applications.

Salk’s Izpisua Belmonte, emphasizing that much more study is needed, said the most important practical application for the new technology could be in correcting genetic mutations in babies either in utero or right after they are born.

“It is crucial that we continue to proceed with the utmost caution, paying the highest attention to ethical considerations,” he said.

SOURCE: http://go.nature.com/2wm4g1v

Nature 2017.

(This story was refiled Refiling with source link at end of story and modifications throughout for professional readers)

First editing of human embryos carried out in United States

(Reuters) – Technology that allows alteration of genes in a human embryo has been used for the first time in the United States, according to Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland, which carried out the research.

The OHSU research is believed to have broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases, according to Technology Review, which first reported the news.

None of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days, according to the report.

Some countries have signed a convention prohibiting the practice on concerns it could be used to create so-called designer babies.

Results of the peer-reviewed study are expected to be published soon in a scientific journal, according to OHSU spokesman Eric Robinson.

The research, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov, head of OHSU’s Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy, involves a technology known as CRISPR that has opened up new frontiers in genetic medicine because of its ability to modify genes quickly and efficiently.

CRISPR works as a type of molecular scissors that can selectively trim away unwanted parts of the genome, and replace it with new stretches of DNA.

Scientists in China have published similar studies with mixed results.

In December 2015, scientists and ethicists at an international meeting held at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington said it would be “irresponsible” to use gene editing technology in human embryos for therapeutic purposes, such as to correct genetic diseases, until safety and efficacy issues are resolved.

But earlier this year, NAS and the National Academy of Medicine said scientific advances make gene editing in human reproductive cells “a realistic possibility that deserves serious consideration.”

(Reporting By Deena Beasley; Editing by Michael Perry)

Giant iceberg breaks off Antarctica

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view of the rift in the Larsen C seen in an image from the Digital Mapping System over the Antarctica Peninsula, Antarctica, on November 10, 2016. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY

By Nina Chestney

LONDON (Reuters) – One of the biggest icebergs on record has broken away from Antarctica, scientists said on Wednesday, creating an extra hazard for ships around the continent as it breaks up.

The one trillion tonne iceberg, measuring 5,800 square km, calved away from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica sometime between July 10 and 12, said scientists at the University of Swansea and the British Antarctic Survey.

The iceberg has been close to breaking off for a few months. Throughout the Antarctic winter, scientists monitored the progress of the rift in the ice shelf using the European Space Agency satellites.

“The iceberg is one of the largest recorded and its future progress is difficult to predict,” said Adrian Luckman, professor at Swansea University and lead investigator of Project MIDAS, which has been monitoring the ice shelf for years.

“It may remain in one piece but is more likely to break into fragments. Some of the ice may remain in the area for decades, while parts of the iceberg may drift north into warmer waters,” he added.

The ice will add to risks for ships now it has broken off. The peninsula is outside major trade routes but the main destination for cruise ships visiting from South America.

In 2009, more than 150 passengers and crew were evacuated after the MTV Explorer sank after striking an iceberg off the Antarctic peninsula.

The iceberg, which is likely to be named A68, was already floating before it broke away so there is no immediate impact on sea levels, but the calving has left the Larsen C ice shelf reduced in area by more than 12 percent.

The Larsen A and B ice shelves, which were situated further north on the Antarctic Peninsula, collapsed in 1995 and 2002, respectively.

“This resulted in the dramatic acceleration of the glaciers behind them, with larger volumes of ice entering the ocean and contributing to sea-level rise,” said David Vaughan, glaciologist and director of science at British Antarctic Survey.

“If Larsen C now starts to retreat significantly and eventually collapses, then we will see another contribution to sea level rise,” he added.

Big icebergs break off Antarctica naturally, meaning scientists are not linking the rift to manmade climate change. The ice, however, is a part of the Antarctic peninsula that has warmed fast in recent decades.

“In the ensuing months and years, the ice shelf could either gradually regrow, or may suffer further calving events which may eventually lead to collapse – opinions in the scientific community are divided,” Luckman said.

“Our models say it will be less stable, but any future collapse remains years or decades away.”

(Editing by Toby Chopra)