A Complete Guide to Icebergs in Newfoundland & Labrador
Newfoundland and Labrador is one of the best places in the world to see icebergs.
From April to August, these 10,000-year-old glacial giants are visible from many points along the northern and eastern coasts. They come in every shape and size, with colours from snow-white to deepest aquamarine. Despite their arrival from the Arctic every spring, and their disappearance only months later, our awe of them remains new, year after year.
Remember: icebergs are not to be underestimated. In 1912, only 400 miles from our coast, an iceberg like these sank the Titanic.
Head over to IcebergFinder.com to start your journey, or keep reading to learn more about these icy giants.
Everything You Need to Know About Icebergs
If you’re visiting Newfoundland and Labrador or if you happen to be in the right place at the right time – you’ll want to make the most of your experience. Here’s everything you need to know about icebergs.
What are icebergs and where do they come from?
Icebergs are edges of glaciers that have broken off and slipped into the ocean. Glaciers form on land by snow building up over thousands of years. Each layer of snow compresses those below until, 60 to 70 metres down, glacial ice forms. Glaciers then "flow" or "creep" towards the ocean under their own weight, and eventually slip in. The glaciers of western Greenland flow at speeds of up to seven kilometres a year, among the fastest moving in the world. After slipping into the ocean, the bergs float in frosty arctic bays melting slowly, if at all, until passing through the Davis Strait and into the Labrador Current which carries them south into Iceberg Alley. Once they head south, they rarely last more than one year.
Roughly 90% of icebergs seen off Newfoundland and Labrador come from the glaciers of western Greenland, while the rest come from glaciers in Canada's Arctic. Their sheer size will amaze you, and that's without seeing the ninety-percent still below the surface of the ocean.
Would you believe most are 10,000 years old? It’s true.
How many icebergs are there?
Every year about 40,000 medium- to large-sized icebergs break off, or calve, from Greenland glaciers. Only about 400-800 make it as far south as St. John's, but these numbers can vary greatly from year to year. The chances of seeing icebergs in a particular area depend on the number of bergs, wind direction, oceans current and temperatures, and the amount of sea ice, or pack ice. Sea ice protects icebergs from the battering of waves and helps them last longer. Years where there is little sea ice cover are often years where there are few icebergs along our province’s coast. Also, there may be areas where you can’t see any, but further up the coast there might be dozens, so be prepared to travel around, and remember that icebergs are constantly on the move.
What causes the streaks and colours in icebergs?
As glaciers creep over land, melt water fills the crevasses and later freezes, creating clear, bubble-free ice. This shows up as bluish streaks in icebergs because of the light scattering characteristics of pure ice. Sometimes airborne dust from volcanic eruptions, or the wind, falls on a glacier and becomes trapped inside, forming a noticeably darkened brown or black layer. But because most volcanoes are south of glaciers and winds from the south rarely mix with Arctic air masses, there are very few pollutants in the ice.
How fast do icebergs move?
Icebergs don’t have a consistent speed. The size and shape of an iceberg, ocean currents, waves, and wind all affect its speed, and because of these forces often travels an irregular path that’s two or three times the straight line distance it drifts south over a week or so. The average drift speed is around 0.7 km/h, although speeds greater than 3.6 km/h have been recorded.
How much do icebergs weigh?
Icebergs can vary greatly in size, ranging from very large – greater than 10 million tonnes and hundreds of metres long – to large, medium, and small bergs. The smallest are termed “bergy bits,” which are the size of a small house, and “growlers,” which are the size of a grand piano. These smaller pieces are hazardous to ships because radar may not pick them up as they bob up and down among the waves. The average weight for a Grand Banks-area iceberg is 100,000-200,000 tonnes - about the size of a cubic 15-story building.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the largest iceberg on record was the Petermann Ice Island of 2010 through 2011. The behemoth was 4 times the size of Manhattan and spawned from a remote floating glacier in north-western Greenland the first week in August of 2010, but it quickly broke into at least 3-4 very large pieces.
Are icebergs unstable?
Icebergs are often very unstable. The random shape combined with the varying degrees of melting and breakup means they can tip or roll suddenly. Generally, the most stable icebergs are tabular, while domed- and wedge-shaped bergs may roll completely over in seconds without any apparent reason.
How hard is iceberg ice?
It’s about 10% as strong as concrete. This may not seem very hard, but it’s a lot harder than ice your make in your freezer. A ship colliding with an iceberg almost certainly means disaster due to the enormous momentum involved and potentially massive contact region. The ice can literally generate hundreds of tonnes of force on a ship’s hull, causing it to buckle, dent, crumple, and even tear apart.
Do icebergs hit the bottom?
Yes, icebergs often "ground" or reach the seabed and get stuck. This happens when fluctuating tidal currents or strong winds bring icebergs close to shore or onto shallow areas like reefs. At times, icebergs "scour" the ocean floor, creating irregular troughs that can be several kilometres long and up to half a metre deep. The Grand Banks are criss-crossed with iceberg scour marks, both recent and decades old.
What are some common iceberg shapes?
Icebergs come in a vast array of shapes due to melting and breaking. Although no two icebergs are exactly the same, there are categories of shapes that are used for observation. Here is a handy guide with some illustrations and real life examples for reference on your next iceberg viewing adventure.
A flat-topped iceberg with a width five times greater than its height. Most have some horizontal banding.
A flat-topped iceberg with steep sides.
A flat surfaced iceberg with steep surfaces on one side and gradually sloping on the other, thus forming a wedge.
An iceberg that is smooth with a rounded top.
An iceberg with at least one main spiral or pyramid on it.
An iceberg with a U-shaped slot at or near water level, and at least two pinnacles or columns.
How to Find Icebergs
Iceberg Alley stretches from the coast of Labrador to the southeast coast of the island of Newfoundland. Some of the more popular places from shore, or from tour boats, are (from north to south): St. Lewis, Battle Harbour, Red Bay, Point Amour, St. Anthony, La Scie, Twillingate, Fogo Island, Change Islands, Bonavista, St. John's / Cape Spear, and Bay Bulls / Witless Bay. All of these locations are accessible by road. The first four, which are on the coast of southern Labrador, can be accessed by car ferry from the island of Newfoundland year round. The further north, the longer the iceberg season.
Visiting during the right time of year
Icebergs are best viewed in late May and early June along the coast of Newfoundland, and between March and July along the coast of Labrador. Bergs are actually most plentiful in April and May but are often trapped in sea ice that prevents tour boats from operating. Usually, the last bergs melt away near St. Anthony in the first week of August, a few weeks earlier around Twillingate and St. John's. It’s always a good idea to check with the Canadian Ice Service, local boat tour operators or Visitor Information Centres for current information.
In some years and in a few areas of Newfoundland’s northeast coast, northward migrating whales and seabirds cross paths with southward drifting bergs. The number of bergs, water temperatures, the timing of bergs and migrations, and other natural factors have an effect. While the triple treat of this spectacle is not entirely uncommon, it should not necessarily be expected, even when travelling at the right time of year. Variations from year to year make it impossible to accurately forecast this most rare of natural wonders.
Using Iceberg Finder
Before your trip – or once you’ve landed – check out IcebergFinder.com, a website that helps travellers locate icebergs across the province. Using satellite technology and visual sightings from tourism operators and Visitor Information Centres (VICs), icebergs are plotted in real time, providing tangible information on icebergs that are currently in and around the province.
How does it work? The icebergs you see on IcebergFinder.com come from two sources: visual sightings from our on-the-ground ambassadors, and satellite detections from C-CORE using data from the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Icebergs are plotted during peak iceberg season, typically from late May to August.
The best part? You can upload your own photos too! If you find one in your travels, and would like to share a photo with us, upload it at IcebergFinder.com and tag it with #ExploreNL and #IcebergsNL as well.
Figure out the best way to see them
The best ways to watch icebergs are by boat tour, kayak, and from land. Many tourism operators around the province offer boat tours designed to show you the icebergs at their best, along with our visiting whales and numerous sea birds.
But you don't necessarily have to go out onto the water – you can also search for nearby trails or viewpoints in the area that will allow you to see them from shore. Stroll along the coast, or sit by the shore and have a picnic. Sometimes all you have to do is step out of your car.
Tips for Iceberg Viewing
For the best (and safest!) iceberg viewing experience, here are some things to keep in mind.
How can I see an iceberg safely?
Icebergs can be unpredictable, which makes them difficult to navigate around safely. When viewing icebergs from the water, it is recommended that you maintain a safe distance (D) – equal to the length of the iceberg (L), or twice its height (H), whichever is greater. Within this perimeter, there is a risk of falling ice, large waves, and submerged hazards. Safety should always be your first priority.
What should I watch for when looking at an iceberg?
Aside from an iceberg’s shape and size, look for colour streaks, caves and tunnels, waterline notches, and even large rocks embedded in the ice. A few years ago the carcass of an unknown animal was spotted in a berg. You’ll often see birds perched atop icebergs, and if they suddenly fly off, it might be a sign the iceberg is about to roll or break apart, a spectacular treat for the eyes and ears.
How far can I see from shore?
Viewing an iceberg from shore is affected by many variables: the elevation of viewpoint, the height of the berg, the clarity of atmosphere, and air/water temperature conditions. The chart below tells you what to expect from various distances.
Distance of Iceberg
Less than 5 km
Highly likely you will enjoy a wonderful view of this iceberg. Even better if the iceberg can be viewed from a hilltop.
Between 5 km and 10 km
A good view from a distance. If you have a camera with a good zoom lens you could get a nice photo. A set of binoculars will also give you a nice view.
Between 10 km and 15 km
Be sure to bring those binoculars or a good camera lens...or even a telescope. If you are determined to see a berg, it is still worth a try.
Greater than 15 km
Don’t have a telescope? Try a local boat tour in the area.
What are popular spots for viewing icebergs from the shore?
If you can’t see them from the water, check out these popular places for iceberg viewing from shore.
Sites in Newfoundland and Labrador
Approximate Elevation from Sea Level
250 metres / 820 feet
Cape Race Light House
30 metres / 100 feet
75 metres / 250 feet
100 metres / 330 feet
Point Amour Lighthouse
33 metres /110 feet
What are Some Other Ways to Enjoy Icebergs?
Photo: © Barrett & MacKay Photo
Sometimes bits of bergs break off and wash up on shore. You can find these bergy bits sitting on our beaches, in plain view, just waiting to be picked up. A chilly, but short-lived memento of your visit, they’re an excellent way to keep your drinks cool. Don't forget your mittens.
Why not enjoy a bergy drink? Icebergs are so plentiful in these parts, we actually put them to good use. Try a beer made with 10,000-year-old glacial ice, or pick up a bottle of locally made Iceberg spirits.
Keep an eye out for iceberg art too. You can't take an iceberg home with you, so why not bring home a piece of iceberg art instead? It's easier to hang on your walls and chances are, it won't melt in the summer.
It’s taken them 10,000 years to get here, but you can discover them in just a click with IcebergFinder.com. Sometimes, these frosty giants are spotted from outer space, other times, from a sliver of our 29,000 kilometres of coastline. If you find one in your travels, and would like to share a photo with us, by all means upload it at IcebergFinder.com and share on social media by tagging it with #ExploreNL and #IcebergsNL.
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