Iceberg alley influx

More ’bergs expected this summer from Petermann island breakup

Deana Stokes Sullivan
Published on May 24, 2011
A Canadian Coast Guard ship is dwarfed by a large sheet of ice in the Canadian Arctic. — Photo courtesy of C-Core

A huge floating island of ice that broke off the Petermann Glacier near Greenland last August could add some excitement this summer during Newfoundland and Labrador’s tourist season.

Charles Randell, president and chief executive officer of C-Core, a local research and development company with ice engineering expertise, says the large tabular sheet of ice is now off the coast of Labrador.

“It’s tracking pretty close to Labrador. Our best estimate is it’s probably going to ground up there and break up,” Randell said.

Icebergs from the fractured ice island are expected to appear off Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula towards the second half of July and into August. If they don’t break up or melt, they’ll make the usual trek around the province’s scenic coastline.

Prime time for tourists

That’s a bit later than the normal iceberg season, but coincides with the province’s prime tourist season, “so it should be a good year for iceberg tourism,” Randell said.

The Petermann glacier generated a lot of interest last year when it calved what started out as a 251-square-kilometre ice island. Recently, it was estimated to be smaller, at about 64 square kilometres.

Randell said icebergs are a regular occurrence, but ice islands — very large tabular icebergs — are a bit of an anomaly, so C-Core’s engineers and researchers take advantage of any opportunity to learn more about them by tracking them, analyzing their melt rates and probability of breaking up.

It could just stay off Labrador and melt, Randell said, but most likely it will break up into more conventional icebergs “and give us more of the sorts of things that we’re used to seeing here.”

C-Core has been involved with tracking icebergs using satellite imagery for about 14 years. It’s a partner in an iceberg tracking website,, with Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador, the provincial Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

Most of the iceberg sightings published on the website have originated from space, using satellite data provided by the Canadian Space Agency and European Space Agency and technology to locate icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Randell said C-Core uses a particular type of satellite that’s 800 kilometres in space. The technology is called satellite-based synthetic aperture radar (SAR). Unlike a camera that’s in space, the radar can see through fog and clouds and is highly reliable.

“The downside is when you look at any targets on radar, it’s not obvious if it’s a ship or an iceberg, so we have put a lot of effort over the years into developing techniques to be able to really, first off, detect very small targets with these sorts of radars in all weather and all things, and to very reliably say, ‘Is this a ship, is this an iceberg or it is something else?’” Randell said.

These satellites cover huge amounts of area — thousands and thousands of square kilometres, he said. That enables C-Core to take a snapshot of a large area and tell very quickly what kind of targets are there and tag their locations.

Randell said it’s not uncommon for the company to receive phone calls asking about the iceberg season around parts of the island, even from cruise ship companies that want to give tourists the best iceberg view possible when they’re approaching Newfoundland.

C-Core has actually received letters from cruise ship captains after their visits to the province, thanking the company for this information.

“Even when we work with the European Space Agency, this whole iceberg thing, everybody seems very captivated by it and they think it’s very cool,” Randell said.

Henry Lau, a communications spokesman for Environment Canada, said seven fragments of various sizes that have broken off from the Petermann ice island are being monitored.

Lau said satellite images are regularly acquired in order to monitor the daily and weekly extent of sea ice over Canadian waters.

“As the sea ice retreats northward along the Labrador Coast, the Petermann ice island fragments will gradually exit the confinement of the sea ice and will be increasingly subjected to weathering caused by wave action and warmer sea temperature,” Lau said. “These factors will play a significant role in fracturing the larger fragments into smaller and smaller pieces.”

According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard works daily with Environment Canada to provide safety information to marine clients through Coast Guard’s Marine Communication and Traffic Services centres. Weather and ice information is issued regularly through a safety bulletin system for all marine industries travelling or working in ice-infested waters.

As of mid-May, Lau said a 12-square-kilometre fragment from the Petermann ice island was about 80 nautical miles east of Nain in Labrador. The 64-square-kilometre tablet was about 40 nautical miles east-northeast of Saglek.

The Canadian Ice Service monitors the daily positions of the various pieces which can be identified using imagery from Canadian satellites Radarsat 1 and 2, Lau said. Information is shared with the Canadian Coast Guard, which is responsible for the safety of marine navigation.

Daily iceberg bulletins and maps, as well as information on the Petermann glacier and ice island, are available on Environment Canada’s Canadian Ice Service website

Tourist information, an iceberg guide, photos and maps can be found at

More information on the Petermann glacier and ice island can also be found on the European Space Agency website,