North Atlantic Icebergs: Hubris, Disaster, and Safeguards

The view out Diane Davis’ kitchen window on June 23, 2017 (Source: Diane Davis/Newfoundland Iceberg Reports).

2017 marked the fourth consecutive year of “extreme” iceberg conditions in the North Atlantic Ocean. According to the U.S. Coast Guard International Ice Patrol, 1,008 icebergs entered shipping lanes in 2017, almost twice the number in a normal season.

Funded by a treaty of 13 nations, the International Ice Patrol is operated by a U.S. Coast Guard unit, which conducts aerial surveys of the Grand Banks, a region southeast of Newfoundland prone to rough seas and a density of icebergs. Institutions from both the U.S. and Canada comprise the North American Ice Service, which creates a daily iceberg analysis for mariners. The patrol was founded following the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912, and, except for the two World Wars, has been in continuous operation since 1913.

Icebergs are created when glaciers calve, releasing pieces of ice to the sea that can be as tall as skyscrapers. Most icebergs in the North Atlantic originate in Greenland, which is rimmed by glaciers that flow to the coast. According to the International Ice Patrol, the elevated count in 2017 was caused by severe storms and higher than normal calving rates of Greenland’s glaciers, which many scientists consider a response to climate change.

However, Mark Carey, an environmental historian at the University of Oregon, says it is overly simplistic to equate iceberg production and climate change, as even growing glaciers calve.

“The classic iconic representation of global climate change is a glacier calving into the ocean, creating icebergs,” he said. “When reports of high numbers of icebergs in the North Atlantic appear, like in the last few years, people might simply think that this is because glaciers in Greenland are shrinking fast and shedding ice.”

An iceberg and oil rig in Bay Bulls on May 1, 2017 (Source: Diane Davis/Newfoundland Iceberg Reports).

In fact, he says the journey an iceberg takes from a Greenland glacier to “Iceberg Alley,” a famously dense area of icebergs on the Grand Banks, is long and complex, and involves more than just glacial calving.

First, a newly-birthed iceberg may never actually leave the fjord in which it was formed. If it does reach the open ocean, it will follow the Labrador Current, which flows north up the west coast of Greenland and south along the east coast of Canada, for as long as two years. During this time, the iceberg may become trapped in sea ice or run aground in shallows. The vast majority of icebergs never reach Iceberg Alley, where the International Ice Patrol counts the icebergs that drift into shipping lanes below 48 degrees north latitude.

“Winter sea ice conditions also affect whether a berg survives and where it goes, so regional weather and not just global climate influence the iceberg journey,” Carey said.

Nevertheless, icebergs can have dangerous outcomes for ships traveling through the North Atlantic region, as the world saw during the sinking of the Titanic and the Danish ship Hans Hedtoft in 1959.

History and global politics makes the North Atlantic especially sensitive to the movements of icebergs. “The North Atlantic has been an integral part of the international political, economic and security system of the day for up to a millennium,” said Rasmus Bertlesen, professor of Northern Studies at the University of Tromsø.

“These shipping lanes are very important, since the U.S., the Canadian East Coast, and Western Europe are power houses of the world economy,” he added.

A life ring that washed ashore in Iceland was the only trace of the Hans Hedtoft recovered (Source: Rasmus Bertelsen).

No ship has collided with an iceberg in the region monitored since the M.S. Hans Hedtoft sank on its maiden voyage. To keep up with fast-moving ice, the Danish Meteorological Institute has recently launched a project that uses artificial intelligence to analyze ice distribution. Though Bertelsen agrees more frequent maps are necessary, he fears history will repeat itself.

“North Atlantic shipping has been the story of technological hubris, human disaster and then technological safeguards,” he said. “Hopefully, these artificial intelligence ice maps will not be the Titanic or Hans Hedtoft of our time leading to disaster and reckoning.”

Carey believes that the portrayal of icebergs as threats to shipping also adds allure to the subject, spurring tourism in places like Newfoundland and Alaska.

Diane Davis, a retired schoolteacher from Newfoundland who runs the Facebook page “Newfoundland Iceberg Reports” agreed.

“Icebergs are a huge tourist draw to Newfoundland and Labrador,” she said.

Davis created the Facebook page to facilitate iceberg sightings in the region. Currently, the page has 7,139 members, who monitor the photographs of icebergs and their locations.

Davis personally witnessed the higher density of icebergs in the North Atlantic over the last four years, and added that many of the icebergs drifted near coastal communities, where people were able to photograph them. The shipping industry is well-practiced at dealing with these icebergs, she said. More concerning to her is the interaction between icebergs and the offshore oil industry.

Diane Davis inspired a character in the Broadway musical “Come from Away,” and met Prime Minister Trudeau when the show toured in Newfoundland (Source: Justin Trudeau/Flickr).

Carey concurs with Davis’ concern. “Icebergs only pose a risk when people get close to the bergs, or when an iceberg drifts close to human populations, infrastructure like docks or drilling platforms, or boats,” he said.

In March 2017, for example, Husky Energy’s SeaRose floating platform came within 463 meters of a large iceberg, threatening 84 crew members and 340,000 barrels of crude oil aboard. The board that monitors industry in the oilfields off Labrador suspended operations for SeaRose, the first such suspension in over a decade.

“Iceberg risk is not just about iceberg production or numbers of bergs in the shipping lanes,” Carey said. “It is also influenced by how often and how many people live, work, travel, and vacation near icebergs–and these numbers are on the rise all the time.”

Ice Cold Beer: Icebergs Take New Form at Brewery

There are four basic ingredients in beer: grain, hops, yeast and water.  Brewers routinely experiment with barley and wheat to distinguish their products in their competitive, creative field.  In Canada, one brewery uses one especially unexpected product to create a natural, pure taste: icebergs.

The blue bottle of Quidi Vidi’s Iceberg Beer (Source: twitter @QuidiVidiBeer)

The St. John’s, Newfoundland-based Quidi Vidi Brewing (QV) is capturing media attention for its beer that is brewed with the water from 25,000-year-old icebergs.

This past month a reporter from Vice’s Munchies toured the operations and sampled the “clean, crisp refreshing North-American style lager.” The company, the largest craft brewery in Newfoundland, also held brewing tours in July.

David Fong and David Rees, both engineers in the offshore oil industry, founded QV in 1996.  The two men converted an old seafood plant into a full-fledged brewery.  Not long after their start, the same year an iceberg drifted up the harbor that sheltered QV, the brewery brought their Iceberg Beer to market.  In March of 2011, QV changed the Iceberg bottle to the dark blue it is today.

After 10,000 to 25,000 years of formation on glaciers in Greenland, the calved icebergs drift southwest on ocean currents and then are harvested off the eastern coast of Canada.  The natural preservation and delivery of the pre-industrial water ensures that it is some of the purest in the world, the brewers have said.  

Harvesting icebergs (Source: Douglas Sprott/Flickr.com)

As QV brewer Les Perry told Munchies,“This is what water should taste like. This could be anything up to 25,000 years old…. By the time it [the iceberg] gets to Newfoundland, it’s shrunk in size, so we’re getting closer to the core, made thousands of years ago, long before we had any contaminants.”

Ed Keanone of the few men licensed to harvest seaborne glacial ice, supplies QV with icebergs.  Every summer Kean heads up the coast of eastern Canada to an area known as “Iceberg Alley.”  There, according to an interview between Kean and Canadian news talk show Breakfast Television, he harvests approximately 1.5 million liters of iceberg water to satisfy his buyers. They include QV, a winery and the Newfoundlander distillery Iceberg Vodka.

In a conversation with GlacierHub, Kean said it takes him and his crew of six roughly four to six weeks to get a full harvest of iceberg water. Kean says demand for iceberg water is growing at roughly 10 percent each year.

Obtaining a reliable supply of iceberg water for a commercial product seems no easy task, but Iceberg Vodka’s Brand Marketing Lead, Rachel Starkman, said differently in an email to GlacierHub: “Because there are a limited number of harvesting licenses available and Mother Nature has continued to bless us with fruitful harvests each year, acquiring iceberg water has not posed any difficulties.”

Despite legal disputes between the two founders that began in February of 2014, Quidi Vidi continues to produce its flagship Iceberg Beer and maintains a strong local following. QV did not respond to GlacierHub’s request for comment on its Iceberg Beer by time of publication.

QV has been in operation for 20 years and they have fought long and hard to gain their customers…. Right now they are in the middle of some challenges but all of their fans are hoping they clear soon and Quidi Vidi will be free to stretch their legs and start brewing new beers in line with many other craft breweries,” said Newfoundlander and beer critic Mike Buhler.

Quidi Vidi brewhouse in St. John’s, Newfoundland (Source: DPJanes/CC)

Buhler, aka “Beerthief,” and his wine connoisseur partner, Tom Beckett, founded the NL (Newfoundland) Artisanal and Craft Beer Club in 2012 and then in 2014 began writing a beer blog for the St. John’s daily newspaper, The Telegram.  The Beer Club hosts beer-centric events all year round and comments on all Newfoundlander brews.  In an email correspondence with GlacierHub,  Beerthief described Iceberg Beer as, “a clean refreshing lager that has earned a very loyal following making it QV’s number one seller.”

Some beer lovers disagree with Beertheif’s positive take on Iceberg Beer.  

Online reviewers give the beer an “okay” rating, saying the gimmick does not necessarily live up to expectations.  The beer received only a 2.75/5 on BeerAdvocate, a global beer review website. With the a price of approximately $20 (Canadian) on the NLC Liquor Store website, some reviews say the beer is overpriced for its quality.  However, most of the beer reviews fall under the neutral category of this BeerAdvocate’s comments when he says, “Overall an alright beer, though certainly one I will not jump to drink. Certainly a must-try for anyone visiting Newfoundland at the same time, as the use of iceberg water in brewing definitely makes for a unique experience.”

This author suspects that Iceberg Beer will be around as long as there are icebergs to harvest.