Ice island heading south off Labrador

By Phil Plait | July 5, 2011 7:00 am

This is truly amazing: you may remember that last August, a vast iceberg 25 km long calved off the Petermann glacier. This chunk of ice broke free and has made its way off Labrador and is headed to the north Atlantic.

NASA’s Aqua satellite caught it in the open water:

It looks almost serene and tiny, doesn’t it? Yeah, until you grasp the scale of this picture: from left to right it’s well over 400 km (320 miles) across, and that ice floe is still something like 20 km (12 miles) across, having shrunk a bit on its 3000 km journey. A beacon was placed on it last year and you can track its position online. Some fisherman shot some close-up video of the berg, too.

It’s unclear what will happen with this monster icecube. It may present a shipping danger, or even be trouble for offshore oil rigs in the Newfoundland area. Between the radio beacon and satellite images like this, hopefully its position and movement will be tracked well enough to predict where it’s headed and minimize any trouble it might cause.

Image credit: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

Related posts:

Enormous glacier calves in largest arctic event seen in 48 years
Dramatic glacial retreat caught by NASA satellite
Subterranean glaciers on Mars
The Amazing Cruise: Day 3 (pix of a glacier I took in Alaska)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (24)

  1. Something that freaked me out a little was when I worked out that if you upended that ice cube into the deepest part of the ocean it would still stick out high enough into the air to be a menace to cruising 747s!

  2. Pete Jackson
  3. Mike

    The references you link to say that it is 20 square kilometres, not 20 km across. The linear dimensions are of the order 4-5km.

  4. Ron1

    @2 Mike.

    You might have a point.

    The guys taking the video refer to the berg as being ” roughly 3 miles by 2.8 miles”.

    At first glace, the scale of the photo in Phil’s post is not known — he says 400km across but, once again, what scale is he using.

    Looking at the image, that’s only a small part of Newfoundland and I can’t tell which part it is but it is certainly not all of Newfoundland which I think is about 1000km wide.


    ps. lookit all those bergi-bits in the video.

    I once took a fam flight on CanICE3 (DHC7) out of Inuvik, NWT (CYEV) in the mid 1990’s on an ice recce patrol. Gotta love the crazies that spend all day staring down at ice — there are a LOT of names for different types of ice (ie. bergibits, growlers, etc.). Obviously, there is nothing this big in the Beaufort sea.

  5. Mike, Roni: Click the link right above the picture. It takes you to a NASA site with the scale of the image. I used that to measure the size of the island.

  6. FoxtrotCharlie

    Pour some Monster Whiskey to go with the Monster Ice-Cube, that’s a tall drink!

  7. Ron1


    That’ll teach me not to follow the supplied links. As well, the NASA site indicates that the shoreline is (as you said) Labrador, which is a lot larger in area than the island of Newfoundland.


  8. Nigel Depledge

    Wait, isn’t it true that 90% of an iceberg is under the surface? If so, how can you use the bit that sticks up above the surface to measure its size?

  9. I make that iceberg to be about 14 kilometers at its widest point.

    Right at the bottom center of Phil’s cropped version of the photo you can make out a substantial island just off the coast… Google Maps identifies it as the Island of Ponds, at 53.467N, 55.891W. (Pardon the lack of links but I find they put me in moderation limbo.)

    Most importantly, the width of the iceberg seems to match the width of that island excluding the northeastern peninsula… and you can go to Google Maps and measure it as being, roughly, 14 km wide.

  10. Jason

    The lines of clouds moving almost horizontally across the image are Contrails correct? I don’t imagine they are a natural cloud formation, not being that narrow, straight and evenly spaced.

  11. Chris Winter

    An “ice cube” with a mass of over 3 billion tons. If it brushes up against an oil platform in the North Sea, say goodbye to that platform.

  12. Messier Tidy Upper

    This song :

    seems appropriate here for some reason.
    Unless I’m getting geographically embarrassed … again.

    (There’s even astronomy artwork at the 2 minutes 35 seconds mark.)

    It may present a shipping danger,

    You mean like this? ūüėČ :

    Warning : possibly NSFW language

    This video, OTOH, :

    Puts across the serious, worrying, side of this large ice-bergs, not so large ice-sheets issue.

  13. ceramicfundamentalist

    it looks to me about the same size as belle isle, which is the isolated island off the tip of newfoundland’s northern peninsula, and can be seen in the larger image. wikipedia puts the area of belle isle at 52km^2 which sounds reasonable to me. i’ve never been to belle isle, but i’ve been on several other large islands off the north coast of newfoundland, and, in fact, i saw a few small broken off bits of this ice island up there last week. just for context, 52km^2 is huge – this is equivalent in size to a significant land mass. i would say that one could spend weeks hiking around on that thing, that is if one had a deathwish. i imagine that there are entire lakes and rivers and perhaps even ecosystems on that thing. undoubtedly there are birds and seals using it, and perhap a polar bear. maybe even algal blooms and fish or crustacean stranded in the standing water.

  14. WJM

    The ice island in the video is not the same as the ones in the satellite picture.

    The video shows smaller “fragments” which had already moved farther south along the Labador coast by mid-June. The satellite image is of the largest surviving Petermann island, which is much, much larger than the already-impressive chunks visited and video’d by the crab fishermen.

    And yes, there are lakes and rivers of meltwater. The blue ponds are even noticeable on the MODIS imagery, and have also been seen in aerial photos.

  15. WJM

    Further to 14., if you click on the full, unannotated version of the image, you can see the “small” ice islands – small being relative – further south, one of which is in the YouTube video.

    The “small” ice islands are easily larger than many of the Labrador coastal islands closer to shore, and you can also see Belle Isle, off the southeast “elbow” of Labrador, and that it is comparable to the Petermann monster further north. And if you enzoom on to the Petermann monster, you can see blotches of that crystalline blue which indicates meltwater ponds on the surface – some of which may be on the order of 100s of metres in diameter.

    Just. Plain. Wow.

  16. Kim

    I had a problem to put this picture in scale, too, so I superimposed it over a Google Maps’ S√£o Paulo picture: . You can see S√£o Paulo and your town at the same magnification and get the scale. In other words, its freaking huge. I live in a medium-sized city with 220,000 inhabitants, and it could be put almost interily over the iceberg – BTW, an interesting sci-fi premise.

    If the iceberg collides with an oil rig, it will pass thru it as it were nothing – besides, 90% of its mass is under the water. Is there a chance it collides with land, or currents would avoid it? How far would it go before melting completely?

  17. WJM


    1) Nice!

    2) Most of the oil platforms in the area can disengage and move if they have to. Smaller bergs are sometimes towed out of the way – not an option in this case. The one real problem might be if a large fragment gets far enough south to endanger the Hibernia platform. It’s a gravity-based structure which sits on the seabed. It’s designed to handle *some* iceberg collisions, but I don’t think anything could handle one of these monsters.

    3) They aren’t likely to be seen in near-shore waters; they would ground and probably start splitting before making it intact close to shore. The coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland have banks, rocks, and skerries for a long way off shore.

  18. But they would cause fog & wind-changes and split off lots of smaller nuisances.

  19. mommy B

    Nothing at all helpful or intelligent to say, but it’s interesting to see Newfoundland & Labrador mentioned on BA.

  20. icemith

    Err…. Phil…. 400 Kms on my calculator, equals approx. 248 miles. I wonder if your calculator is in need of a battery? It seems that measurements in this item are all having problems.

    @ #1. If 90% of an iceberg is underwater, (I thought the figure was only 70% approx. but I will go along with 90% as quoted in this exercise), then if the iceberg was upended, it would be a very tall iceberg. I’m joking, of course. Actually, it would still have the same amount underwater, but it seems that there is a perception out there that that mass under water, would make a very tall island if it did happen. Naturally that cannot happen.

    But, can anybody assure me that if that ‘berg approached a shallow sloping continental shelf, and somehow managed to be driven up to the shoreline by currents and/or hefty winds….. nah, that is also a fantasy. The mechanics just wouldn’t allow it.

    But then consider this. What if there was an uplift of the ocean floor – say a couple of hundred meters, and the massive iceberg was projected upwards, so that it did become a very tall icicle or in reality an ice scraper? Frankly, I don’t think it would be the first thing on our minds, more likely the other effects of the former tectonic impetus, with a gigantic tsunami visiting all shores! Everybody can swim in their own backyards, or maybe somebody else’s, a few suburbs, or even cities away.

    Hey, let’s start working on a Sci-Fi movie, or have I already given the plot away?


  21. Sparky

    So if it heads toward an oil rig, someone will have to get a bunch of guys from the rig and fly them to the iceburg to drill into it and plant nukes, right?

  22. WJM

    I hear Will Smith is right on that.

  23. There are a number of fairly clear images that I placed into a proper latitude/longitude frame together with scales after re-processing the very raw NASA data from scratch. The way this island moved the last 330 days is classical physical oceanography … MIT has beautiful movies of the basics physics that give a good first idea why particles in a rotating fluid (like earth, atmosphere, and galaxies, possible) move in ways that are not always intuitive. Oh … and in the 50ies, the Navy did try to break up much smaller icebergs. It does not work, because most of the energy is taken up by all the little air bubbles and such inside the ice.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar