The art of iceberg chasing in Newfoundland

For two days, adventure sports photographer Dru Kennedy and his friend waited for the fog to clear from Goose Cove, a popular spot for iceberg viewing near Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. They were hoping to set up a perfect biking shot in front of a drifting iceberg. 

The two were about to give up and go home, when the fog suddenly lifted, presenting a short window to capture the massive hunk of ice.

As he was packing his car to head home, he heard a rumble. “It was the iceberg foundering. The next morning when the fog cleared [again] there was no iceberg left.”

Iceberg chasing can be unpredictable, but it draws hundreds of travelers to the coast of Newfoundland each year. Patience, timing, and serendipity are all part of the search. However, this spectacle could soon come to an end. 

Newfoundland’s icebergs are broken-off bits of Greenland’s glaciers which have drifted east. A 2019 study from the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the glaciers in Greenland are melting four times faster than previously thought, raising concerns about the migration of icebergs to Newfoundland.

After three years of light iceberg seasons, there has been a reported uptick in these icy behemoths floating through “Iceberg Alley”—a stretch of water curving along the eastern coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, the easternmost province of Canada. But the numbers are still below average compared to the last decade, reports the U.S. Coast Guard and International Ice Patrol’s July 21 Iceberg Outlook report.  

Scientists aren’t sure what the future holds for iceberg season as the world heats up due to climate change. The planet has warmed 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius) since the early 19th century, leading to extreme weather patterns that will only get worse as global temperatures continue to rise, reports National Geographic’s Sarah Gibbens, citing a U.N. report on the state of the world’s climate. 

“[There are] several different pieces of this puzzle that we have to put together,” says Juliana M. Marson, a physical oceanographer and assistant professor at the University of Manitoba. She says she and her colleagues are “very keen in investigating how the iceberg counting in Newfoundland might change in the future.”

But for now, here’s how to see these awe-inspiring ice giants before they are gone.

Disappearing ice

Most of Newfoundland’s icebergs break off from Greenland’s glaciers or Arctic Canada’s ice sheets before slowly journeying southward to the open waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. Some of the region’s most famous icebergs include the slightly-smaller-than-Manhattan Petermann Ice Island-A that came within 10 miles of Newfoundland’s coast in August 2010.

Glaciers are formed when snow accumulates in an area, with layer upon layer of snow ultimately compressing into ice. Marson says the icebergs calved from these glaciers are often formed from ice that is potentially tens of thousands of years old, and a single iceberg can contain ice from several different eras.

(As the climate warms, how much, and how quickly, will Earth’s glaciers melt?)

Wind, ocean currents, and sea ice can also play a part in how quickly icebergs move and where they end up. “Icebergs [can] get trapped in sea ice and can remain in the north for a little while,” says Frédéric Cyr, a Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) oceanographer and research scientist, but “when the [sea] ice melts they start to move again faster.” 

He adds that while there is ongoing research on the topic, it is not yet fully understood why icebergs move the way they do, or why some years bring many to Newfoundland’s coast and others few.  

In 2020, 2021, and 2022, the International Ice Patrol (IIP), a cooperative that has been monitoring icebergs since the Titanic sank in 1912, reported that 169, one, and 58 icebergs, respectively, crossed the 48th parallel north—which cuts across Newfoundland midway between Bonavista and St. John’s. That’s a big change from 2019 when more than 1,500 icebergs crossed the latitude.

But 2021 wasn’t the first year the province has seen little to no icebergs. The DFO reported one iceberg in 2010, only two in 2011, and zero icebergs were reported in 1996 and 2006.

Searching for icebergs

Kennedy saw his first iceberg when he was 12 years old, sparking a lifelong passion to chase and photograph them. He grew up in an area of Newfoundland that doesn’t generally see icebergs, but a school trip brought him to the Great Northern Peninsula where he saw an iceberg so large it peeked over the mountains.

“I was pretty mesmerized by the size of them compared to the mountains in the area,” he says.

Since icebergs can float away, break apart, or melt at any time, some seekers find it helpful to check Iceberg Finder or social media groups for the latest sightings, while others leave it up to serendipity. “You never know where they’re going to show up, so they often bring you to a real cool part of the island,” Kennedy says.

(For an otherworldly experience, venture into Europe’s ice caves.)

Diane Davis was standing on the shores of Lumsden one June day in 2014 when she counted over a hundred icebergs. The following year, she formed the Facebook group Newfoundland Iceberg Reports, a page dedicated to sharing Newfoundland iceberg sightings. Davis has lived in Newfoundland for 37 years, and she is still mesmerized by icebergs. “The size of them is mind-blowing, and the various shapes are incredible,” she says.

The ephemeral nature of icebergs is part of their beauty and allure. Barry Rogers, owner of Iceberg Quest Ocean Tours, grew up in Twillingate, watching icebergs as a child. “It all began from a snowflake,” Rogers says. “Thousands and thousands of years later, they’re arriving on our shores here.” He points out that it is also their “swan song,” where they will ultimately melt off Newfoundland’s shores. But before the icebergs complete their journey, visitors still have a chance to appreciate them.

Kristen Pope is a freelance writer covering science, conservation, wildlife, and climate change.