Newfoundland iceberg season off to an early start

[Iceberg off Elliston, N.L., taken on Jan 23, 2016/PHOTO COURTESY: Eric Abbott]

Newfoundland is famous for the icebergs that dot the island’s coastlines in the spring and summer. But iceberg hunters are getting an early-year treat this winter with much earlier-than-normal sightings.

A large, flat iceberg has been spotted off the coast of Elliston, Newfoundland and Labrador, over the past few days. It was first sighted near Maberly on Jan. 14, according to photos and accounts posted in the Newfoundland Iceberg Reports Facebook page.

Almost all of the icebergs seen around the Rock originate from the glaciers of western Greenland, according to Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism. It’s out of the ordinary for icebergs to be visible from the shore so early in the year, Diane Davis of Gander tells Yahoo Canada News.

“They’re often around, but what’s really unusual is the fact that we can see them from land,” says Davis, who runs the Newfoundland Iceberg Reports Facebook page and website.

Thursday’s daily iceberg analysis chart from Environment Canada shows multiple icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, though most are too far from land to be seen.

“Usually a few icebergs will lead ahead of the sea ice pack, but tend to melt if they get too far ahead into the warmer waters,” Jason Ross, senior ice forecaster for the Meteorological Service of Canada, tells Yahoo Canada News. “Currently the sea ice pack is near 50’N [latitude], which is about normal for this time of year, and we’d expect to see a few icebergs off the northeastern and eastern coasts of Newfoundland.”

Icebergs are in the ocean for most of the year because they’re constantly moving. However, they generally don’t get close enough to the shore to be visible until after the sea ice, which generally begins to form along Labrador’s southern coast in late December and moves southward over the winter, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

And until that sea ice has moved past Newfoundland, it’ll be hard to tell what kind of iceberg season is coming for 2016, Davis says.

“Until the sea ice moves out in the spring, you don’t really know,” she says. Early icebergs near the shore aren’t necessarily a sign that there are a lot set to pass by Newfoundland this year.

And though much of the province has had a milder-than-usual winter so far, that might not be related to the icebergs either.

“People think that one now means there’s extra greenhouse effect or extra polar [ice] melting, because one came down in January,” Davis says. “But that iceberg’s probably been moving for a couple of years.”

The weather may be playing a role in a couple ways though, Ross says — not in the formation of the icebergs themselves, but in helping them show up closer to shore.

“Currently there are some icebergs in the northern Grand Banks. It’s more unusual to see icebergs that far ahead of the ice pack. This is likely due to periods of strong northerly winds along the Newfoundland and Labrador coast during December and January,” Ross says. “Also, sea surface temperatures have been below normal in the area for this time of the year, which could have helped prevent the icebergs from melting as they travelled southward.”

But however many bergs do show up as the year moves into spring and summer, people are definitely interested. Icebergs are a major tourist draw for Canada’s most easterly province. The government’s tourism department maintains an iceberg-tracking site showing their most recently reported locations. There are people from around the world in Davis’s Facebook group, she says, including a woman from Holland who has visited Newfoundland 11 times.

Davis started her Facebook group to share the results of her own passion for icebergs, which takes her across the island. She saw 700 icebergs two summers ago, she says, during a particularly good season.

“As soon as weather gets good in the spring, we go chasing icebergs,” she says. “We’re tourists at home.”

Both locals and tourists use the page to share current photos of icebergs during the season, she says, which provides a service to the small towns that can benefit from the arrival of people who are hoping to catch a glimpse.

It’s easy for many Newfoundlanders to forget the icebergs are there. And they can go years without seeing one if they aren’t living along one of the coastal communities along “iceberg row.”

“I teach in Gander,” Davis says. “I’ve got probably more kids in my class who have been to Florida and visited Disney than have seen an iceberg.”

But perhaps seeing the excitement visitors share for the icebergs — not to mention the frequent social media posts of iceberg photos — helps Newfoundlanders see them in a new light.

“Locals are used to seeing it, but I think that they’re starting to see it in new eyes,” Davis says. “They’re starting to see it in tourists’ eyes.”

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