Monday, January 23, 2012

Notes from Iceberg Alley

Icebergs. I love the variety of shapes, sizes and colours of these great mountains of ice that drift past Newfoundland's coast in the spring. Most are calved from the glaciers of Greenland, with a few coming from the islands of Canada's eastern Arctic, often spending a year or more reaching the Davis Strait before drifting into Newfoundland waters via the Labrador current. The ice in these bergs is ancient, some of it formed more than 15,000 years ago. Spotting an iceberg in the distance, on its slow, majestic journey, is always a thrill. Sunlight on the white surface of a berg can make it visible miles away on the horizon -- and illuminates the underwater shelves of the berg with an intense, otherworldly glow.
The white or pale blue appearance of most icebergs comes from the fact that the ice is full of air bubbles, but the ice has been formed under tremendous pressure. The dramatic blue streaks that often appear in icebergs are meltwater streaks, or areas where melted ice has re-frozen without bubbles. These darker streaks not only stand out against this pale surface, their rates of melt can be different so as the iceberg melts they may stand out from the surface or appear as deep grooves. Occasional dirty streaks are visible as well, the result of dust or other natural impurities that have settled on the glacier's surface as it was being formed. Bergs are so large that they can create their own micro-climates, causing swirls of mist to form and eddy gracefully around them on the hottest summer day.
It's the shapes, though, that fascinate me. Harsh, jagged surfaces of newly broken ice are sculpted by seawater into soft, fluid forms. Textures may be smooth, pitted, deeply grooved or pebbly, and each surface texture plays new tricks with the light to create unusual effects. A bit of imagination is all it takes to see dragons, griffons, skyscrapers and spaceships. Iceberg season is just around the corner -- they'll start to appear along Newfoundland's coast in April, just as one particular berg did a hundred years ago, for a date with destiny in the form of the Titanic. The season will last, depending on the section of the Newfoundland and Labrador coastline, until sometime in August on average. In 2011, though, there were so many icebergs of massive size that they lingered far longer, right into October. Here's to a good iceberg season. I think a toast is in order -- with an Iceberg beer, of course.

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