Will There Be Icebergs This Year?

With iceberg season nearly upon us, here’s the science (and art) behind safely spotting icebergs off the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador.

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“When we fished inshore for cod, Atlantic salmon and Arctic char, we would always get good hard tough ice by chopping chunks of bergs floating by in order to keep our catch fresh for the marketplace,” says Captain Alex Saunders from his home in Goose Bay, Labrador, in mid-March. Saunders is an 80-year-old Inuk fishing captain who says his Northern Labrador upbringing and six-decade-long fishing career has meant he’s “no stranger to icebergs.” 

‘Chip off the old block’ holds a literal meaning in Newfoundland and Labrador. Icebergs are the more than 10,000-year-old ice (chips), hived off from glaciers (blocks), typically from Greenland. 

“In many ports I sailed into in Greenland, bergs were a common sight all summer long and the Inuit up there paid them no mind but considered them a nuisance as they required cautious navigating around them and they often snarled fishing gear,” says Saunders.

What might be considered a nuisance up north becomes something of a blessing down south, where locals and tourists alike hope to catch a glimpse of the former Greenlandic glaciers. The icebergs migrate from the Arctic along the sub-Arctic Labrador coast, then to the north coast of Newfoundland along a route of the North Atlantic Ocean called ‘Iceberg Alley’. 

“Only a small fraction of the icebergs that pass Newfoundland and Labrador come close enough to land to be seen. Most pass hundreds of miles offshore,” says Diane Davis, a Gander resident with a summer home in Deep Bay, Fogo Island. Davis runs the Newfoundland Iceberg Reports group (a public social media group that’s 24,000 members and growing) and @NLIcebergReport.

“Historically, most icebergs pass in May and June, but the season is usually April through July, and we can get occasional icebergs earlier and later. Like anything, good information will help people who want to find icebergs,” says Davis. In fact, the season can extend even longer throughout the year.

The Independent, Monthly iceberg count crossing south of 48°N on the northern Grand Bank during the annual iceberg season (from October to September). The vertical bars on the 1991-2020 average correspond to ±0.5 SD. Note, there was only one iceberg count crossing during this period in 2021 (February). Source: Data from the International Ice Patrol of the U.S. Coast Guard. Figure modified from Cyr F. et al. (2021), DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2021/017. iv + 52 p.

The Canadian Ice Service is responsible for ice reconnaissance in Canada. Operated by Environment and Climate Change Canada, they provide timely and accurate information about ice in navigable waters in Canada to promote safe maritime operations and help protect the environment. The Canadian Ice Service publishes archival data, seasonal outlooks and a daily Iceberg analysis chart along with a series of other ice-related charts for the East Coast. (You can also explore ice conditions for other regions across Canada—Arctic Ocean, Western Arctic, Eastern Arctic, Hudson Bay, and the Great Lakes—and view tips for how to read an ice chart). Meanwhile, the United States Coast Guard International Ice Patrol counts icebergs that cross the latitude of the Grand Banks (48°N).

The latest daily iceberg analysis chart from the Canadian Ice Service shows dozens of icebergs, but they’re passing “extremely far offshore,” says Davis of the chart dated 16 March 2022.

Source: Canadian Ice Service, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Government of Canada. Daily Iceberg Analysis Chart for 16 March 2022. See the latest chart here.

It’s too early to gauge how the 2022 iceberg season will play out, but last year’s underwhelming season has many people holding their breath for what will become of this year’s bergs.

 “Only one iceberg crossed 48°N last year, compared to less than 200 in 2020 and more than 1500 in 2019,” says Frédéric Cyr, a research scientist with the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre at Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) in St. John’s.

Daryle Hancock calls these July 2017 icebergs off Fogo Island “summer drifters.” Photo by Daryle Hancock.

It’s not that there were fewer icebergs shed off Greenland, says Cyr, but the icebergs didn’t reach spots along NL’s 29,000 kilometres of coastline where passersby could appreciate them. 

“In 2021, I fished 110 miles off Cape Harrigan on the edge of the Continental slope and saw lots of huge bergs in perfect line with each other drifting South,” says Saunders. Cape Harrigan is an island on the central Labrador coast. 

Annually, there are more icebergs shedding off from Greenland. And aerial and satellite footage show a continued trend of more icebergs annually. But with last year’s warmer spring and strong north-easterly winds blowing offshore, the 2021 icebergs didn’t make it past Labrador to iceberg alley along the coast of Newfoundland.

Sea ice and icebergs are two of 10 variables measured in the Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) climate index, which describes the environmental conditions on the NL shelf (the continental shelf extending from Labrador to the east coast of Newfoundland, including the Grand Banks) and in the Northwest Atlantic ocean as a whole. The data shows the North Atlantic Ocean is trending warm with an increase in the annual number of icebergs—from an annual average of 495 (over the last 121 years) to 771 (over the last 30 years). Scientists have also reported “anomaly years,” where 1500 icebergs were recorded annually—that last happened in 2019, 2014 and between the early 1980s to mid-1990s.

Iceberg count: Annual iceberg count crossing south of 48°N on the northern Grand Bank. The shaded area corresponds to the 1991-2020 average ±0.5 SD. Source: Data from the International Ice Patrol of the U.S. Coast Guard. Figure modified from Cyr F. et al. (2021), DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2021/017. iv + 52 p.

Also seen as part of the warming trend, the climate index shows weakening sea ice since the early 1990s. Last year was one of the weakest years for sea ice on record, says Cyr.

“Less sea ice is definitely expected from climate change projections, so an anomalous 2021 might well become a normal 2050,” says Cyr. He cautions that his reference to “2050” is arbitrary, but he’s making the point that today’s findings—and trends—inform tomorrow’s projections. (Read more about Cyr’s work and the NL Climate Index in The Independent).

As a result of melting freshwater ice from terrestrial glaciers and icebergs, the sea level is predicted to rise from 75 cm to two metres by 2100. Meanwhile, multi-year sea ice (ice that persists through at least one summer melt) is declining at a rate of 13 percent. By 2030, the Arctic is estimated to be ice-free in summer. (All of these facts are from the Canada Goose Arctic Gallery at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa).

“We need to hope for inshore winds and currents,” says Davis about this year’s iceberg season. Davis established the iceberg group in 2015 to give iceberg hunters a greater chance at catching a glimpse of ice from former Greenlandic glaciers. The public social media group is populated by residents who live along Iceberg Alley as well as fishermen offering local knowledge, but the majority or members are tourists. Meanwhile, the provincial government runs its own tourist iceberg service (IcebergFinder.com) for those wanting to “see these frozen giants up-close and in person.” (At the time of writing this explainer, the government website was down, but it’s expected to be up and running again come spring featuring tourist photos and a mapping of the latest iceberg sightings. Davis says the government website didn’t launch last year due to the lack of icebergs).

Even with all the iceberg reports, luck comes into play when trying to spot one. As icebergs move south from Greenland, they become increasingly unstable. Eventually, icebergs flip and calve before they melt. At times, icebergs “founder,” imploding without warning. Add to that, most icebergs are not visible from above (90 percent of an iceberg’s size lurks beneath the surface). Given the unpredictability of iceberg size and stability, it’s always preferable to view icebergs from a safe distance on land, says Davis.

Seasplainer is The Independent’s monthly fisheries and oceans explainer series by journalist Jenn Thornhill Verma. Canada is a country of coastlines—the longest on the planet. The magnitude of that coastline is only overshadowed by the knowledge of those who call these coastlines home. Seasplainer travels to the boots and boats in harbours of the Northwest Atlantic to relay the best-available evidence on fisheries and oceans in Canada. Our explainer series covers a range of topics relevant to fisheries management, marine biodiversity, ocean climate, environment, natural resources, and more. Each issue is reviewed by those with on-the-ground, bench or policy strengths and expertise. This issue was reviewed by: Diane Davis, Frédéric Cyr and Alex Saunders.

Follow Jenn on Twitter.

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