Winter, icebergs and briny depths

Paul Sparkes
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“Immediately off the Mackenzie Delta, the Beaufort Sea is shallow; it is only 20 metres deep 50 kilometres from shore due to the flat continental shelf that extends into the sea. The shelf ends about 150 kilometres from the coast, then falls steeply to the floor of the Beaufort Sea which is more than 3,500 metres deep.”

Formidable even in decline, a melting iceberg dwarfs a Newfoundland fishing vessel. — Courtesy of C-CORE

If, like a sizeable portion of the population you still cannot get a feel for that unless you “translate” metres, you will surely sense a chill  when you understand that the nearly half-million square kilometre Beaufort, lapping at Yukon’s northern fringe, is in places more than two miles deep.

East, over to our side, we have this:

“The Labrador Current … a strip of icy water roughly 150 kilometres wide, sweeps along at 10 kilometres a day near the coast and faster farther out to sea. The icy current chills the air over the Labrador Sea, giving onshore winds a wintry blast even in mid-summer.”

Thirty-five years ago Petro Canada published several booklets designed “to inform our employees about the environment and people of regions where resource development is being pursued.” My first quotation is from “Getting Along in the Mackenzie Delta.”  My second is from “Getting Along in Labrador.” They are well-written and lavishly illustrated booklets.

As I had some small part in the production of these booklets here 35 years ago, I do remember the people producing them as having  invented the word painstaking.

They would probably have proofread a blank page. But the labour invested in the publications tends to give them a value even 3 1/2 decades later.

Right now in eastern Newfoundland we are crawling through a challenging winter. We are consuming furnace oil by the truckload, trudging ankle-deep in snow and depositing it onto the floor of the car.


If you wish to feel deliciously secure and comfortable in your Newfoundland or Labrador home, then a glimpse of the frozen North at its most intimidating will heighten your affection for  insulation.

 Consider the threatening power of an iceberg of, say, 250 feet in height. While it is not quite correct to say that it would pierce the depths nine times greater than 250 feet, so, 2,250 feet, which is nearly a half mile down, the dramatic point is nevertheless made.

If such a berg were in the Beaufort, then below that berg there could conceivably be an extra 1 1/5  miles of dark, watery depth.

Wikipedia has a wonderful presentation under the single word “Iceberg.” Among other awesome facts, it says that the highest iceberg discovered (so far as we know) was in the early 1950s off Greenland and it was just over 500 feet high. Consider the Christ the Redeemer statue in South America. It is nearly 100 feet tall (without its base) and so it would take five of these standing on each other’s shoulders to equal that 1950s berg.

Years ago, on a late spring day I was a passenger on a sail-and-engine boat out of Manuels for a short turn of the bay. We approached a tall and off-plumb pinnacle of ice plunging and rising slowly near the western end of Bell Island. I remember glancing at the boat’s water depth gauge as we crept with a near-idle ever closer to the ice. I do not remember the figure on that gauge but I do remember leaving my fingernail imprints in the boat’s gunwale.

 “In the Mackenzie Delta area, winters are long and cold … January is the coldest month of the year for inland locations ... February is the coldest month along the coast.” It’s a small wonder one of the booklets cautions a person on cabin fever:

“In winter and early spring some people, particularly those who did not grow up in the north, may become ‘bushed’ or suffer from ‘cabin fever.’ This complaint, probably brought on by the combined effects of the cold, darkness and social isolation of winter is really a type of depression. People suffering from it may behave strangely, may become quarrelsome and unable to work properly, may abuse alcohol or drugs, and in a very few severe cases may become a hazard to themselves and to bothers. To avoid getting bushed, it is important to have a varied routine, including as much sports and entertainment as possible.”

Marauding iceberg

I have just taken a few moments out to spot-read a book about the iceberg which met the Titanic 102 years ago next month.

You cannot talk of the Arctic and icebergs without thinking of Titanic. The book I have here is “Voyage of the Iceberg” by Richard Brown, published in 1983. Piecing together a story of the movement of the berg from calving to collision — a period of a year and a half — Brown says “most” of what he writes is true. It felt to me not so much like intentional fiction as  intelligent glue. The book is a gripping 145 pages. Monitoring the berg is routine, even if spectacular. Yet underlying all that narrative is the reader’s knowledge of what is going to happen. Here is a small piece from that critical moment which has long since been frozen in time:

“It has the winged look of bergs that have reached the Grand Banks and rolled often along the way; a tall, central spike of ice flanked by two smaller ones like the back and arms of a chair. It is only about 90 feet

high …

“It strikes. It brushes along the length of Titanic’s starboard side and it litters her main deck with a rubble of dirty ice …

“The iceberg rocks a little from the force of the impact, spins a little, and keeps on drifting southward, changed only by a smear of red and black paint along one of its sides.”

“Voyage of the Iceberg” is worth your time. It is much more than the story of an ill-fated ship — it is about icebergs, the people and wildlife of the northern regions, the coastlines, bays and some of nature’s most extreme forces.

It would be no trouble to find a copy online — visit and under the rare books section, put in the book title and author’s name.

Accompanying icebergs

An iceberg is seldom alone. If we  are not in its company or spotting it from shore — “on a clear day, an observer can see large bergs up to 30 kilometres away” says the Labrador booklet, then it sails with an intriguing retinue from the marine world. This is from “Getting Along in Labrador”:

“Icebergs often travel with an entourage of wildlife. Birds may patrol the edges of a berg in search of fish near the surface, or rest on the ice while en route to nesting areas further north. Schools of fish feed on the plankton clinging to the underside of the berg; the fish may even attract great whales.”

The waters off Labrador

The Beaufort Sea beats the Labrador Sea in depth by (generally) about 500 metres. The shelf off Labrador reaches well out from the southeast knob of the landmass. As it runs north, the shelf tucks into the coast until at about Makkovik it is about 90 kilometres wide. The water over most of the shelf is 200 metres or more deep, says the Petro Canada booklet. “But the ocean floor rises to within 80 metres of the surface to form a series of ‘banks’ off Labrador.” Once off the shelves or banks, however, the ocean floor is then about 3000 metres down.

Organizations: Petro Canada

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Yukon, Greenland South America Bell Island Arctic LabradorThe Beaufort Sea Makkovik

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