Nfld. & Labrador

Icebergs moving from Greenland to Newfoundland expected to slow dramatically by century's end, researcher says

Researchers have found Greenland ice is melting four times faster than previously thought, which would influence icebergs and infrastructure planning in Newfoundland and Labrador.

More melts in Labrador Sea might mean much fewer icebergs making it to St. John's, Canadian glaciologist says

Lev Tarasov, a glaciologist at Memorial University of Newfoundland who studies the interaction between ice and climate change, says: 'By the end of the century, we're going to have less icebergs coming from Greenland.' (Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC)

The arrival of icebergs in Newfoundland and Labrador ushers in spring and brings tourists in droves to coastal towns such as Bonavista.

On a cold, rainy June day, about a dozen adventure seekers set out on the Lady Marguerite, a 14-metre tour boat owned and operated by Derm Hickey, a retired fisherman.

"The tourism is a great boost to Newfoundland, to all the little outports and the city, too," said Hickey.

This iceberg arrived and grounded off Bonavista with a lot of rocks and debris on the top. It lodged there after grinding through a valley in Greenland before it reached the ocean, and the debris stayed on top. So this one took part of Greenland with it. This is not an unusual occurrence, but the debris is normally lost when the iceberg flips over. (Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC)

While 2019 has been considered a good year for glacial sightings, according to the North American Ice Patrol, the latest research indicates within this century, climate change could threaten the annual migration of the ice behemoths.

The icebergs off Newfoundland "calve" — or break off — the western side of the Greenland glacier.

A study published on Jan. 1 in the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found the "deglaciation of Greenland" is resulting in ice melting four times faster than previously thought, raising concerns about the migration of icebergs to Newfoundland. That has prompted Memorial University glaciologist Lev Tarasov and his colleagues to study the relationship between glaciers and climate change. 

Tarasov is the sole Canadian among a group of international scientists working on the Ice Sheet Model Intercomparison Project (ISMIP), the results of which will be presented to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) later this year.

Tarasov's work is specifically on the Greenland ice sheet. By boring down into the layers of ice, he said, scientists can tell that there was little change in the Greenland ice sheet between the mid-1900s to the turn of the 21st century. At that point, however, rapid melting began, he said.

Hundreds of icebergs appear off the coast of Newfoundland every spring, but scientists are concerned the pace of the melting Greenland glacier could mean that within this century, they may not make their annual migration. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

More melt could mean more icebergs in the near term, but fewer in the future, he said.

"By the end of the century, we're going to have less icebergs coming from Greenland. There's also going to be more melts in the Labrador Sea, so that might mean less and less icebergs making it to St. John's."

The Greenland ice sheet, measuring 1.7 million square kilometres, extends beyond land and over the sea. But when the ice shrinks to the point that it ends up on land, it can no longer fall into the sea to form icebergs.

"That ice will not form icebergs because they are not in the water."

Tarasov said warmer ocean temperatures below the ice sheet will cause even faster melting, and those rising sea levels will cause coastal erosion.

Planning for an uncertain future

Increasing sea levels and the coastal erosion it causes are of great concern to Joe Daraio, a hydrotechnical engineer at Memorial University who specializes in designing infrastructure to adapt to adverse events.

If we have a design life of 50 years, in 50 years the climate is going to be very different.- Joe Daraio, hydrotechnical engineer, Memorial University

"We have a lot of coastal towns in Newfoundland and Labrador ... So how do we design a bridge crossing, a culvert to carry the largest possible flow?''

Joe Daraio, a hydrotechnical engineer at Memorial University, studies the hydrological impact of climate change, says the engineering profession is just starting to incorporate climate change in a more systematic and rigorous way. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Daraio has received funding from Natural Resources Canada to train engineers working with the provincial government to factor climate change projections into their designs. 

"The assumption is that the future is going to be like the past when we do our designs, but that's not the case with climate change. If we have a design life of 50 years, in 50 years the climate is going to be very different."

The engineering profession is just starting to incorporate climate change in a more systematic and rigorous way, said Daraio.

Sea level rise will force migration

​Tarasov said the impacts of rising sea levels globally on human migration are his "nightmare scenario."

"There's millions of people living within a metre of sea level. So a one-metre rise of sea level is possible within our best models right now by the end of this century," which would force those people inland. 

When you consider some of this ice took 100,000 years to form, roughly 80 years is a short period before it could all disappear, said Tarasov.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Chris O'Neill-Yates

National Reporter

Chris is CBC NL's national reporter for CBC TV, Radio and cbc.ca. Her investigative/enterprise journalism has garnered multiple awards including from the CAJ, RTDNA, AJA, and CBA. Chris is multilingual, and holds degrees from Memorial University (BA Hons), University of King's College (B.J.) and King's College London (M.A. South Asia and Global Security). Story idea? Email: chris.oneillyates@cbc.ca

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