My family lived on a farm north of Lake Superior for a couple of years when my brother and I were kids, so I’m very familiar with cold and snow. Our small community usually saw the first snowflakes fall before Halloween, spent all winter under a feet-thick white blanket, and didn’t see grass until April. I remember that the coldest day we saw during that time registered at -52oF (before Canada switched to the Celsius system), and there were a number of days when either the teacher (who lived in one of the towns at least 30 minutes away in good weather), or we students, or both couldn’t make it to school because the roads were clogged with snow.
But that life pales in comparison to what the people in Newfoundland experience, ranking in the top dozen lists of Most Snowfall (outside the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia), Biggest Blizzards and Most Days with Snow on the Ground (Snowiest Places in Canada). Newfoundland also sits somewhat enviably on the edge of Iceberg Alley, where the massive frozen chunks we call icebergs break off glaciers in Greenland and make their way southward along the prevailing currents until they eventually melt in warmer waters.
It was one of those icebergs that gouged out the starboard side of the enormous ship Titanic on the evening of April 14, 1912 and sank the world’s most famous passenger liner. Not the way the crew and passengers wanted to go down in history, by any measure.
Icebergs are strange creatures, so much so that many places speak of them almost as if they’re alive. When they break off from their parent glacier in spring and summer, the process is called ‘calving’, and the hundreds of bergs that drift down the eastern coast of Canada are referred to as an annual migration.
Although the icebergs travel through salty ocean waters, they themselves are composed of the purest water on Earth – most of them, anyway. There are big sheets of frozen salt water that form in fall and winter around Greenland, and also break up into chunks when the thaw sets in.
Officially, though, an iceberg is a piece of freshwater ice at least 15 metres long (about 49 feet) with 5 to 15 metres (16 to 49 feet) sticking out above the water’s surface. that chunked off either a glacier or an ice shelf and floats about in open water. These pieces of ice are classified by size: bergs are either small, medium, large or very large – imagine coming face to face with a behemoth over 600 ft long and 246 tall. And because almost 90% of an iceberg’s mass is below water, you’d dearly want to avoid the part you couldn’t see!
Smaller chunks of ice from between 5 to 15 metres long are called ‘bergy bits’, while those smaller than that are called ‘growlers’. They’re all dangerous. If you think of how much the Ice Age glaciers transformed North America as they moved, carving out lakes and mountains, you get a sense of how, despite the size of the early great transatlantic liners (the RMS Titanic was 971 feet long), in a collision it was the iceberg that was the ‘immovable object’.
The iceberg that the Titanic ran into was believed to have been, according to eyewitness reports, between 50 to 100 feet tall and 200 to 400 feet long. The below-water section of it, which is what tore open the huge gash in the ship’s hull, may have been half a mile in length (over 2500 feet). When the ship’s spotters first observed the gigantic piece of ice headed straight for them at 11:39pm on that fateful night, it was only about 900 feet away, i.e. practically on top of them. Only 30 seconds later, the ship felt the impact as the helmsman frantically tried to get out of the way but the iceberg slowly ground its way past.
So when you read about the modern-day men in Newfoundland who snag and fish out such huge chunks of ice, usually weighing several tons, (“The Iceberg Cowboys Who Wrangle the Purest Water on Earth”, “Iceberg harvesting is a swashbuckling new industry in Newfoundland and Labrador”), you may wonder if they’ve lost their minds. Many of the bergs they harvest have calved from the very same glacier that produced the one that sank the ‘ship that couldn’t be sunk’, Sermeq Kujalleq. The Titanic ran into its destroyer in Iceberg Alley, when the ship had almost made it all the way across the Atlantic and was already telegraphing Newfoundland’s Cape Race station to announce its impending arrival in New York.
The Titanic disaster is one of the most studied in history, but still remains an enigma. That year there was an abnormally large number of icebergs in Iceberg Alley. Numerous sightings by other ships were radioed or telegraphed to the Titanic but the captain ignored them and didn’t reduce speed. And many wonder why the spotters didn’t sight the behemoth until it was too late to avoid.
The intrepid berg catchers go out in large fishing boats and with any luck can clamp an iceberg and slowly feed it through a grinding machine into storage tanks. But if the boat can’t get close enough (remember the nasty part hiding in the dark sea waters), they have to transfer to a small motorboat, wrap it in a net, haul it on board the bigger boat and hack it up into chunks. It seems to be fairly lucrative work – the pure water apparently has an amazing taste (if the taste is anything like the water we kids used to scoop out of streams that ran across those farms up in northern Ontario, I believe it – I’ve never tasted anything as wonderful since) and is used for premium Iceberg Vodka, Iceberg Beer, bottled water and fizzy ice cubes. In 2016 Newfoundland introduced a tax on iceberg harvesting.
I’d love to visit Antarctica, where 93% of the world’s mass of icebergs float around, just to see the magnificent beasts. (For some wonderful photography, check out this article in the National Geographic Resource Library Iceberg.) That’s a very expensive trip, though. A better option might be to travel to Greenland, where you can also go iceberg-watching. There you can see 5 kinds of ice:
- White ice, which is relatively young with many air bubbles that allow light through and give it the dazzling snowy colour
- Blue ice, which is older, from the Greenland Ice Sheet. It’s heavier, more compressed, and with a blue cast.
- Black ice, which is clear but looks black as it floats on the water. It’s feared because it’s so hard to spot and because its weight drags the most dangerous part below the surface, where it lies in wait for unwary ships.
- Dirty ice, which has accumulated mud and sand from blowing storms.
- And there are the aforementioned saltwater ice chunks to content with as well.
A late friend of mine was lucky enough to hear and see an iceberg calving many years ago. When hubby and I were in New Zealand, checking out Mt. Aoraki, we witnessed several small avalanches and were struck by how noisy they were – I can only imagine the sound of an entire berg leaving home. Maybe one day we’ll get to witness it for ourselves.
In the meantime, here are a few fascinating facts about the babies that attack ships:
- Each year, between 10,000 to 15,000 icebergs are calved, most of them from the Antarctic continent, which also produces the largest glaciers.
- The ice in icebergs can be more that 15,000 years old.
- Icebergs can contain up to 10% air bubbles by volume, and when the bubbles are released as the bergs melt, they make a fizzing sound called ‘Bergie Seltzer’.
- We tend to think of icebergs as huge chunks just floating placidly through the water, but as they melt they can actually flip over, or even capsize. The largest bergs can create earthquakes as powerful as an atomic bomb.
- One can tell if an iceberg is going to flip if any birds sitting on it suddenly take flight. It’s believed that the birds have such a keen sense of balance that they can detect gradual movements in icebergs long before people can see them.
- Along with white, blue, black and dirty, icebergs can also be green, yellow and striped, depending on their water composition and algae that might be inside.
- Icebergs are also classified by their shape: tabular (with steep sides and a flat top), non-tabular, dome, pinnacle, wedge and dry-dock (where a slot or channel has eroded into the body of the berg)
- The largest Northern Hemisphere iceberg on record was seen in 1882 near Baffin Island. It was 8 miles (13 km) long, almost 4 miles (6km) wide and held enough water to give everyone in the world a litre of water daily for four years.
- The Hibernia off-shore production platform, 315km away from Newfoundland, was designed to withstand the impact of an iceberg in excess of five million tonnes. It has a reinforced concrete caisson made of high-strength concrete reinforced with steel rods and pre-stressed tendons (multi-strand wires or threaded bars made from high-tensile materials), surrounded by a wall with 16 wedge-shaped concrete teeth to break up the impact of such an iceberg.
- The Antarctic ice sheet, which actually covers a desert below it, is at least 40 million years old.
- If that ice sheet were to melt, it would raise the world’s seas by over 60 metres (almost 200 feet) – which is one of the many reasons that global warming is so dangerous for our planet.
Any photos taken by me in this post may not be used without my express permission. E. Jurus