This story was written for GlacierHub by Bonnie J. McCay, Ph.D, of Rutgers University. If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or @glacierhub on Twitter.
My partner Roger Locandro and I like to come to our home on Fogo Island, Newfoundland, for a week or two in early March to enjoy a Newfoundland winter and particularly the vistas and dramas of “pack ice,” the local term for Arctic sea ice. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic led us to stay through April and possibly on to the summer, and so we have been able to witness the longer pattern of seasonality in the sub-Arctic NW Atlantic.
Here on the northeast coast of Newfoundland, what looks like spring on the standard calendar—April month––is better known as a time when Arctic sea ice dwindles and icebergs begin to show up. The northern coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador constitute the southern extent of Arctic sea ice, which begins to shrink in March and, in this region, disappears from coastal areas in April or thereabouts (National Snow & Ice Data Center, Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis). Pack ice moves into and out of the harbors of Fogo Island with changes in tide and wind but can stay packed solid for long periods of time, stretching out to the horizon (Figure 1).
The Arctic sea ice brings harp seals, who migrate southward in the spring, breeding and delivering pups at the edge of the ice off the coast of Newfoundland. For generations seal hunting was part of the annual cycle for Newfoundland fishers, and Fogo Island is close to “the front” of the harp seal fishery. This year the seal hunt has been called off because of the pandemic. Sometimes polar bears come this far south, too, following their prey. On April 5, 2020, a young polar bear was sighted close to our home in Tilting but, to our relief, was last seen at a nearby beach looking as if it was about to swim away.
As the sea ice melts and retreats, icebergs are freer to move around and some arrive close enough to shore to be visible from land (Figure 2, 3). In recent years, Newfoundland tourist sky-rocketed based on the opportunity to see icebergs, which in some years are exceptionally numerous and large. We don’t know what this season will bring but so far, late April, we have seen half a dozen sizeable bergs, and in most years one can anticipate seeing icebergs well into June). Unfortunately, because of the pandemic they will not bring tourists.
Some of the bergs we’ve seen so far this year look quite worn-out (Figure 4, 5), which is no surprise given the life history of the typical iceberg.
Those that make it to the waters of northeastern Newfoundland are probably from glaciers of the west coast of Greenland. They break off from glaciers such as Jakobshavn, where they form a dense river of pieces of ice that get swept north in the Baffin Bay current (Figure 6), and then drift southwards in the Labrador current, ending up in “Iceberg Alley,” which includes Fogo Island.
Their drift ends when they meet the warm waters of the Gulf Stream around the Grand Banks, some distance south of Fogo Island. It usually takes two or three years to make that trip, and so it’s no wonder that some of the icebergs look travel-worn when we see them.
Nevertheless, they are special and wondrous visitors (Figure 7), and we are happy to have the privilege of being here to see them.