Heavy sea ice off Newfoundland and southern Labrador has been an issue for months: it brought record-breaking numbers of polar bear visitors onshore in early March and April and since then has hampered the efforts of fisherman to get out to sea.
Let’s look back in time at how the ice built up, from early January to today, using ice maps and charts I’ve downloaded from the Canadian Ice Service and news reports published over the last few months.
The tour is illuminating because it shows the development of the thick ice over time and shows how strong winds from a May storm combined with an extensive iceberg field contributed to the current situation.
Bottom line: I can only conclude that climate change researcher David Barber was grandstanding today when he told the media that global warming is to blame for Newfoundland’s record thick sea ice conditions this year. I suspect that because Barber’s expensive research expedition was scuttled, he simply had to find a way to garner media attention for his project — and the media obliged. Read to the end and decide for yourself.
As of the first week in January, sea ice off Newfoundland was “normal” (i.e. average), with less ice in the Strait of Belle Isle and in the nearshore of southern Labrador than usual (pink and red areas), although there was more ice than usual further offshore (blue areas):
By the middle of February (below), there was extensive ice off southern Labrador and Newfoundland but it would have been mostly thin first year ice at this point:
The first “stage of development” chart I saved for this region this year was for 27 March (below), which shows mostly thin first year ice off Newfoundland (light green), medium thick ice off Labrador (0.7-1.2m), and a quite extensive field of icebergs off the entire coast (red triangles):
By the week of 10 April, the field of icebergs is huge and there is more medium first year ice (0.7-1.2 m) than thin first year ice and some of those icebergs have made it south of the Strait of Belle Isle:
The first signs of trouble
The first reported trouble with ice in the Strait of Belle Isle that I came across was 14 April (National Post), over the Easter weekend (my bold):
The Canadian Coast Guard tweeted Friday afternoon that an icebreaker is escorting the Apollo ferry to port after being stranded near Blanc-Sablon, Que., since Thursday.
The ferry departed from St. Barbe on Newfoundland’s northern peninsula Thursday morning, but the normally less than two-hour trip to Blanc-Sablon was delayed when the ship got stuck in the ice in the Strait of Belle Isle.
On 19 April, the CBC published an update on conditions in the Strait of Belle Isle, where the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Terry Fox was busy trying to clear a path for ferry traffic:
Rebecca Acton-Bond, the acting superintendent of ice operations with the Canadian Coast Guard, said ice breakers have been busy, with the ferry in the Straits needing assistance nearly every day….
She said there’s a high concentration of medium and thick ice, some as much as four feet thick, with a significant flow size.
“There’s always ice in the Straits, but it’s very, very thick ice,” said Acton-Bond.
Acton-Bond said currents and tides play a factor in the ice conditions, but wind is the largest determinant in the movement of ice, and she expects some help from the wind in the coming days.
Ice was thick in the Strait in February 2015 and made headlines at the time: there was extensive pack ice at that time but not many icebergs.
Icebergs hit the news
Here’s the chart for 20 April showing the iceberg field, which extended as far north as northern Labrador, through the Strait of Belle Isle to southern Quebec and well out into the Atlantic off Newfoundland (CBC story here):
Above photo from 18 April 2017 CBC report (more photos at the link). Note that Newfoundland icebergs are not bits of sea ice from the High Arctic that have drifted south but bits broken off Greenland glaciers. See map below of drift of icebergs that have calved from western Greenland (from Environment Canada, 2015):
Here is what Environment Canada (2015) says about iceberg numbers (notice that global warming is not mentioned):
Four factors or conditions primarily determine the number of icebergs that will drift toward and ultimately survive to reach the Grand Banks:
• the intensity or transport rate of the Labrador Current
• the direction,strength and duration of the prevailing winds encountered by the icebergs during this drift
• the extent of the sea ice cover to protect the icebergs
• the environmental conditions to which the iceberg is exposed (air and water temperatures, wave action)
Pack ice packs in
By late April, the CBC was reporting Newfoundland “socked in” with ice 26 April “Northeastern Newfoundland socked in with sea ice: Coast Guard says up to 40 miles of sea ice between some communities and open water”
“A large pack of ice came down from Labrador and filled up into Notre Dame Bay and the whole northeast coast is full of ice,” said Trevor Hodgson, the Canadian Coast Guard’s superintendent of ice operations for the Atlantic region.
“So we are experiencing probably 30 to 40 miles of pack ice for most communities to be able to get out into open water.”
Hodgson said ice conditions in the Strait of Belle Isle have improved.
“There was a lot of pressure coming in on the ice coming into Blanc Sablon and St. Barbe, for the ferry for Labrador. That has been some trouble but the ferry is running today and everything is looking good for the next couple of days,” he said.
Hodgson said it’s difficult to say how long ice might be a problem on the northeast coast.
“It’s not something we can easily predict. It has to do with the wind, weather, waves, and many factors. So, we are hoping for some southwest winds to clear ice off the northeast coast over the next week or two.”
By the 28 April, much of the ice off Labrador had developed into thick first year ice (more than 1.2m thick), and the CIS chart now stated “ice warning in effect”.
By 7 May, thick first year ice was dominant in the area of the Strait of Belle Isle and off southern Labrador (below), with many icebergs in the surrounding waters. Because this pack ice is not constrained by land masses as is ice in much of the Arctic, it is subject to being pushed and pulled by currents and winds. You can see on this chart that some of the icebergs have made their way into the pack and have come to rest along the shore of Newfoundland:
By 18 May, the ice off southern Labrador was thick first year ice (>1.2m), as was much of the ice off northern Newfoundland:
Then came the storm
However, by 26 May, the Coast Guard was telling fishermen to stay in port, after storm winds over the May 24th weekend packed thick ice into the shore (26 May CBC):
The Canadian Coast guard is telling Newfoundland fishermen not to go fishing because of sea ice that’s packed into bays on the northeast coast of the island.
It’s particularly bad now because of the storm that hit the island over the long holiday weekend pushing thick, heavy ice into shore.
By 1 June, shrimp fishermen in Twillingate (an island off the central north shore of Newfoundland) reported their boats trapped in by the ice (CBC story here).
The ice off Newfoundland by 1 June was now thick first year ice (>1.2m) that had blown south from Labrador and got packed tightly into tall the bays and coves along the north shore. Note the absence of “old ice” (brown: two years old or older).
By this time, icebergs large and small were being incorporated into the pack because virtually all of Newfoundland was surrounded by icebergs:
Just a few days later, the rescue of several boats trapped in ice hit the news, particularly around La Scie on the central north coast, marked in red below:
From the CBC (8 June):
Thursday [8 June] marked the safe return of two fishing vessels that were stuck in ice, a day after the crew of another boat had to be airlifted to safety after the vessel started to sink.
Five boats left La Scie on Tuesday [6 June] to fish for crab, but ran into trouble with the thick ice pack almost immediately after leaving the harbour.
There’s a great video clip from Global News (published 3 June), which emphasizes the onshore winds and colder than normal local temperatures: http://globalnews.ca/video/3501076/packed-sea-ice-prevent-newfoundland-fishermen-from-starting-season
By 11 June (below), the ice charts show little ice off southern Labrador but thick first year ice but lots of “old ice” in many places around northern Newfoundland. These must be crushed or compressed icebergs incorporated into the thick first year pack ice:
That brings us to today’s headline (12 June 2017, CBC):”Climate change researchers cancel expedition because of climate change.”
It begins with this jaw-dropping statement:
A team of scientists had to abandon an expedition through Hudson Bay because of hazardous ice conditions off the coast of Newfoundland caused by climate change.
It goes on. But note that their trip began just after the intense May 24 storm that packed thick Labrador ice and icebergs into the north shore bays and coves, a significant event of which Barber seems unaware:
Their trip began May 25 in Quebec City, but due to bad ice conditions off the coast of Newfoundland, the icebreaker was diverted from its course to help ferries and fishing boats navigate the Strait of Belle Isle, said David Barber, a climate change scientist at the University of Manitoba and leader of the Hudson Bay expedition called BaySys.
Thick, dense ice had travelled to the area down from the High Arctic, said Barber, which caused unsuspecting boats to become stuck and even take on water.
“The requirements for search and rescue trumped the requirements for science,” said Barber. “The search and rescue calls were coming in quite fast and furious.”
‘Very severe ice conditions’
According to the Canadian Coast Guard, the conditions were unlike anything ever seen before in the area.
“It was just extreme ice conditions that required everything that we’ve got in order to make sure we were able to provide the services,” said Julie Gascon, the coast guard’s assistant commissioner for the central and Arctic region.
Strong northeastern winds started packing in ice in late April and never stopped, said Gascon. The result was sea ice conditions treacherous for even an icebreaker to navigate.
“We never had any issues in the past of this nature,” she said. “Very severe ice conditions.”
Barber’s crew decided to take advantage of the opportunity to examine bits of iceberg ice trapped in pack ice, even though they’d never seen Arctic ice before. Unfortunately, Barber leaped to his favourite conclusion without doing the necessary background research on the local situation:
Barber and his team began using their equipment on board the icebreaker to take samples and analyze the ice.
They determined it was multi-year ice, not typical of the northeast coast of North America and most likely from the High Arctic. Chunks measured between five and eight metres thick.
“This is the first time we’ve actually seen ice from the High Arctic,” said Barber, who has studied the impacts of climate change on sea ice for decades.
Typically when people think about climate change they think about thinning ice, but Barber points out the warming action also loosens ice and broken icebergs can travel long distances on ocean currents.
“It’s very much a climate-change driven phenomenon,” said Barber. “When you reduce the extent of the ice and reduce the thickness of it, it becomes more mobile.”
Today’s ice chart (12 June), ice warning still in effect:
Still no shortage of icebergs: