Small icebergs can be the real killers
"An iceberg is an iceberg; you don't want to hit even a small iceberg"
A century after the “unsinkable” RMS Titanic hit an iceberg, researchers are still trying to devise foolproof ways to detect and track hundreds of huge, ship-threatening bergs that break away each year from west Greenland glaciers and the Canadian Arctic.
The international effort to protect transatlantic marine traffic from the icy menace that routinely skirts Newfoundland and Labrador’s coasts en route to the open ocean began with the loss of the Titanic on April 15, 1912. The sinking prompted the signing of the 1914 Safety of Life at Sea convention and the creation of the International Ice Patrol.
Scientists say that despite a century of technological gains, ships rely heavily on a detection method as old and as fallible as sailing itself… the eyeball.
“Icebergs are very dangerous objects because they drift, they are not stationary, and in higher wave conditions they can be masked or hidden from a ship’s radar. That’s why they are still a danger today,” says Michael Hicks of the Ice Patrol.
Today, the Ottawa-based Canadian Ice Service — an arm of Environment Canada — works closely with U.S. officials under the auspices of the International Ice Patrol in patrolling the Grand Banks and surrounding areas for iceberg threats.
“We are trying to follow icebergs by satellite, which is much more economical than by plane, but it is not an exact science,” Canadian Ice Service senior ice forecaster Lionel Hache said. “It is very difficult to identify an iceberg within an ice field, and it isn’t easy to differentiate between a ship and an iceberg. But we are in the process of developing better ways to track them.”
The challenge, he says, is to keep fine-tuning iceberg imaging technology to balance the demand for extensive monitoring of East Coast waters — from Baffin Island to Newfoundland and beyond — with the need for high-resolution tracking of individual bergs that could pose a hazard to ships or oil platforms.
Every day, Canadian and U.S. forecasters produce an updated chart showing the approximate location of all known icebergs being carried south by the Labrador Current — a cold, fast-moving stream of sea water that acts like a conveyor belt delivering bergs from the Arctic to the open Atlantic.
The chart depicts the waters around Newfoundland in a grid pattern with a bold line delimiting the presence of icebergs, benefits from satellite imagery, direct observation from aircraft and drift calculations developed by CIS and National Research Council scientists.
The frozen mass that the Titanic struck 100 years ago is believed to have begun its journey — like most icebergs coasting near Newfoundland — as a colossal chunk of ice that broke free of the Jakobshavn Glacier, which regularly calves great sections of its leading edge near the town of Ilulissat on Greenland’s west coast.
According to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, a Colorado-based institute that monitors the state of Arctic Ocean ice, the Jakobshavn Glacier “is responsible for the majority of icebergs reaching Atlantic shipping and fishing areas off of Newfoundland, and most likely shed the iceberg responsible for the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.”
Hache said icebergs that don’t get grounded near Baffin Island or elsewhere along their southward journey often veer east after reaching Newfoundland, following the path that carried Titanic’s nemesis to its fateful encounter. “We still talk about it,” notes the veteran forecaster, acknowledging that even the scientists tasked with preventing a repeat of the Titanic tragedy are captivated by the “very good story” that reaches its climax with the collision of ice and steel on the evening of April 14, 1912.
The record-setting retreat of Arctic sea ice in recent years is not likely to lessen the threat posed by icebergs in the foreseeable future, said Hache.
Scientists believe the warming polar frontier has led to the collapse of ancient ice shelves, the accelerated calving of glaciers and the discharge of more and larger icebergs.
Scientists are predicting greater ice movement in the coming years down a narrow passage between Ellesmere Island and northwest Greenland.
“If those ice plugs melt, the thicker ice from the Arctic Ocean could go farther south than it was going before,” said Hache, noting the irony that retreating Arctic sea ice could lead to greater hazards for the increasing number of ships now plying northern waters.
“Less ice,” he said, “doesn’t mean it is not dangerous to go there.”
Hache also pointed out that the iceberg struck by the Titanic was probably of average size — not the monstrosity that might be imagined from the epic story that has come to surround the event.
“A large one [might have been] much easier to see. And an iceberg is an iceberg; you don’t want to hit even a small iceberg.”
with files from AFP/Postmedia News