Have you ever seen a massive rock in the middle of nowhere and wondered how it got there? There’s a chance ancient glaciers transported it and left it behind when it melted. Called glacial erratics, these stones can be carried for hundreds of miles and range from small pebbles to menacing boulders. Just off the northeast coast of the island of Newfoundland, near the village of Tilting on Fogo Island, the small, cone-shaped Pigeon Island may be home to such a landform.
This Photo Friday, enjoy images from Bonnie McCay, an environmental anthropologist from Rutgers University, who has done extensive research on fishing communities in Newfoundland. McCay recently shared a few photos of this impressive rock formation on her personal social media account. This distinctive landmark located on a small island brushed by the Labrador Current is “either an erratic or a dropstone, though one Tilting native likes to joke that he rolled it up there years ago with a friend,” she said. Like similar stones across the world, this rock can provide hints to scientists about ancient glacier movements. Or at least it becomes a fun landmark for the local community.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
This past month a reporter from Vice’s Munchiestoured 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.
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 Kean, one 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.
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.
Protected for centuries from pollutants in the air and sea, water from glaciers has sprung up in a new market: liquor.
“It’s the notion that it’s kind of untouched by human hands,” Beverage World editor in chief Jeff Cioletti told OutsideMagazine in 2013, “you can’t get water purer than that.”
Water with fewer impurities is a key element in high-quality liquor. Though using glacial water small part of the market, several companies are using water trapped in glaciers for thousands of years to make vodka and other liquors, including Finlandia, Estonia’s Ston vodka, and Alaska Distillery.
Since glacier harvesting is not done substantially, there is little regulation of it. Alaska is the only U.S. state that requires permits in order to use the water. Scott Lindquist, the head distiller of Alaska Distillery, is the sole holder of such a permit. His company is using meltwater from icebergs broken off of the Harding Ice Field in Prince William Sound to make vodka. Yet, Lindquist is not alone, people from Newfoundland and Labrador, where permits are also required from the provincial government, have been harvesting icebergs for centuries. Ed Kean, a fifth-generation sea captain, seeks Canadian icebergs every year for a local vodka maker, a brewer, a winery and a bottled-water outfit in Newfoundland. Icebergs calved off the ice-shelf of Greenland arrive in Newfoundland and Labrador during spring and early summer and they can be harvested until late September.
Iceberg harvesting is not an easy job and choosing the right bergs is a skill. Years of experience is required to determine where and which iceberg to harvest as well as how to remove the ice without rolling the iceberg. People like Lindquist and Kean are particular about the glacial loot they gather. They prefer clean, round pieces not exposed to the sun too long to avoid evaporation of the “oldest and tastiest inner crystals”. Once they’ve found the suitable ice, they would scoop up or break off pieces of ice using tools like hydraulic claw. The difficulty of iceberg harvesting is the reason that Lindquist is the only remaining ice-harvesting permit holder in Alaska, which once stood at 12 issued permits.
Although beverages containing glacial water are attractive, it is also a challenging market. Despite the technical difficulties of iceberg harvesting, this activity may be opposed by tourism industries. Some local tourism officials in Newfoundland think iceberg harvesting is threatening the unspoiled beauty, which is a main tourist attraction each summer in Newfoundland. “Demand for iceberg is booming,” Kean told Wall Street Journal last year. Keeping up with demand for iceberg-infused drinks is another big challenge for these companies.
I write this from Fogo Island, where the terrain and sea are sub-arctic, brushed and at times tormented by the strong and cold Labrador Current, which wards off the warmer waters of the Gulf stream. The Labrador Current is part of the counter-clockwise vortex of the western waters of the North Atlantic ocean that picks up the pieces of glaciers of Greenland. The broken pieces become icebergs, and the waters of the north east coast of Newfoundland, where Fogo Island sits, are known as “Iceberg Alley.”
In some years, like this one, 2014, icebergs from western Greenland (and, to a lesser extent, the Canadian Arctic) come close to shore in large numbers. Many remain grounded on shoal spots through the summer. As of this writing, August 10, 2014, twenty to twenty-five icebergs are known to be on the Funk Island Bank, within 100 miles of Fogo Island. There were hundreds here in May and June.
To someone like me, an outsider who happens to have visited for the past 42 years, the sight of icebergs brings wonder and delight and demands photos.
This year’s bounty is particularly joyful, because Newfoundland’s tourist economy, which increasingly sustains its rural “outport” communities, relies heavily on people like me. For the past several years, there were few icebergs to be seen during the peak tourist season, July and August, and that hurts Newfoundland, which uses icebergs as major attractions for tourists. (The provincial government established www.icebergfinder.com to help tourists and their hosts identify where they might have a chance of seeing icebergs from the shore or from boats.)
Local newspapers announced that 2014 was a “banner year” for iceberg sighting, and there are hopes that reports of this will stimulate more people to come next year. This year is also a “banner year” for warm weather, fish, and whales on Newfoundland’s northeast coast. In July and early August the one business providing boat trips for visitors to Fogo Island was able to promise not only getting close to icebergs but also calm seas, opportunities to watch humpback, finback, and minke whales, and chances to drop a line and catch codfish.
The dark side to icebergs is well known, although it is usually overlooked by tourists who take pleasure in their beauty. After all, Iceberg Alley is where the Titanic struck an iceberg and went down in April 1912, killing more than 1,500 people. The Canadian Ice Service’s reports on icebergs are used not only for tourism but also to warn ships of dangers at sea.
For local fishermen, a year like this is a problem, too, because icebergs can tear up crab pots and other fishing gear, normally put out once the sea ice has diminished in late April or May. Fishing crews must keep someone on watch all night to avoid collision with icebergs. As problematic are the smaller pieces of ice, the “bergy bits” and “growlers” that break off of the larger bergs. Bergy bits are small icebergs, roughly the size of a house. Growlers is the local name for pieces much the size of a grand piano (the similes come from Stephen Bruneau’s Icebergs of Newfoundland and Labrador). Small as they are, they are hard to see with radar and can be very damaging to boats and gear.
Fishermen are therefore very respectful and even fearful of icebergs. They take great care not to get too close to them, despite pleas from tourists. On the other hand, even smaller chunks of ice, often seen near foundered icebergs, can be captured with gaffs and nets and brought aboard, to provide fresh water for the crew and to take home to keep in the freezer, to be used as “iceberg ice” in drinks.
Over the last decade, with the rise of tourism, iceberg ice has gained some panache; who wouldn’t find it interesting to be told they were drinking 10,000-year-old fresh water taken from a piece of a glacier floating in the sea! Always enterprising, some Newfoundlanders have made businesses of providing iceberg ice, and there are companies that have licenses to harvest icebergs in Canadian waters. The Canadian Iceberg Vodka Corporation uses the small bits of ice that break off from bergs for its product.
Symbolic of what has happened in Newfoundland in recent decades is the fact that the iceberg vodka business took over an abandoned salt cod factory, in the coastal town of Port Union in 2013. For most of the 20th century, Port Union was a major fishing town and the home of a fishermen’s union. In 1992, the cod fishery was officially declared in “collapse” and local cod populations have only grown slowly The fishery may never recover economically. But like the fishery, iceberg vodka depends on the vagaries of nature, and a series of low iceberg years makes it vulnerable to collapse as well.
Iceberg presence and abundance along the coast of Newfoundland is variable, and people value them and fear them for different reasons and from different perspectives. Like the unusually warm and dry weather of the summer of 2014, it’s easy to think that the stunning parade of icebergs is one of the positive effects of global warming. Their appearance on the coast may increase for some time with the warming and melting of the glaciers of Greenland, as well as the glaciers of Canada’s Arctic islands. On the other hand, warmer North Atlantic waters hasten the melting of icebergs, too. In any case, their routes are not always close to the coasts, making life in Iceberg Alley as unpredictable as ever.
For more about the birth of icebergs in Greenland, click here.
And for another story linking glaciers and tourism, click here.