The Grand Migration

During the latter part of each spring, a group of ancient drifters cause a commotion on a coastal highway that stretches from Labrador to Newfoundland. Known as Iceberg Alley, people from all over visit the area to watch these passers-by as they embark on one of nature’s most beautiful yet fatal journeys.

Like peak hour traffic, for a brief time this North Atlantic passage surges with migrating humpback whales, seabirds and the southerly drift of an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 icebergs. Ever since the Titanic struck one of these submerged monoliths near Newfoundland in 1912, the danger icebergs pose to ships has been well documented. But over 100 years later, as warming waters threaten to diminish the lifespan of icebergs, their fragility often overshadows their might.

“The mass of each frigid giant takes thousands of years to manifest…”

Of all the transients that congregate along this ocean alley, icebergs take the most time to arrive and the least to leave. The mass of each frigid giant takes thousands of years to manifest, beginning as snowfall over western Greenland that freezes and compacts to form glistening glaciers. The heavy ice beneath fresh layers of snow creeps further west to meet the Arctic Ocean, where the push and pull of the tides calve the glacier’s edge into icebergs. Once released, they drift nearly 2,500 miles over two to three years, towards the whales and seabirds of Iceberg Alley. But of the thousands of icebergs calved from Greenland’s glaciers, only about 300 reach the warmer Atlantic waters surrounding Newfoundland; fewer still drift as far south as St John’s.

For those lucky enough to see the icebergs at the 50th parallel north, the variety of form and color seems in tune with the abundance of spring. Shapes can be tabular, wedge-like, domed, blocky or pinnacled, and the light scattering characteristics of the pure and highly compressed ice creates a luminous blue palette. The spectacular site is also spring-like in duration – changing rapidly as the air and water temperature rise with the coming summer.

Often not as easily appreciated with the naked eye, the 200,000 tonne giants that travel to Iceberg Alley are also the fastest moving in the world – carried by the wind and the strong Baffin Island and Labrador currents. In terms of scale, the average drifting iceberg measures on par with a 15-story apartment building – with the equivalent of the penthouse suite being the only visible part. For iceberg enthusiasts it’s often the largest forms that excite, but sailors must also look out for blocks the size of a single-story house, known as “bergy bits”, which are easily missed by radars. If all else fails, seabirds can provide clues to an iceberg’s next move, often taking flight shortly before a block breaks or the whole frozen form rolls over.

Iceberg Alley offers a chance to witness the final stage of these surviving drifters’ lengthy migration from Greenland. You can watch, mile by mile, as their frozen shapes shift and change in a tremendous display, before finally melting into the Atlantic. Although their presence is fleeting, the impression left by encountering these intriguing giants will always remain.

Written by Amy Woodroffe
Photographed by Kevin Redmond

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