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Monster Icebergs Crowding Canada’s Coast Are Likely Harbingers of Climate Change

They're a beautiful sight, and a looming reminder of our changing planet.

The glistening spires of Iceberg Alley on Canada's East coast, so called for the yearly parade of icebergs that floats by, don't normally inspire headlines around the world, despite how impressive a sight it can be. But this week, the beaching of a giant chunk of ice on the shores of Ferryland, Newfoundland has attracted international attention, looming as it was over the picturesque town perched on the Avalon Peninsula on the Atlantic Ocean.

It's part of a huge uptick in bergs floating down the eastern coast of Canada recently. More than 450 of them have been reported in shipping lanes so far in this year, with last year's total count culminating at 687. Scientists are puzzled about exactly why so many icebergs are piling up on the East coast right now, although climate change could have something to do with it, and send more our way in years to come.

Their towering white shapes are an omen of a radically different future. Warming Arctic waters mean these icebergs are melting earlier, and end up being much smaller.

In other words, tourists should enjoy them while they still can.

A large iceberg is visible from the shore in Ferryland. Image: The Canadian Press/Paul Daly

According the Canadian Ice Service (CIS), icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland normally calve from glaciers of Greenland and Baffin Island, then float down the Davis Strait in the Labrador Sea and past the towns and villages on the coast. They're carried by ocean currents and strong winds, and interact with coastal boat traffic so much that there's need for organizations like the International Ice Patrol and to keep track of them, so nobody smacks into one.

I reached out to University of California, Irvine professor Eric Rignot, who has decades of experience studying the ice sheets of Greenland. While he couldn't comment directly on what we're seeing in Newfoundland this year, and the seeming surge of icebergs there, he agreed that climate change, in general, is sending more icebergs into that part of the Atlantic.

"With climate change, more ice is disbursed into the ocean by the glaciers, effectively increasing the number of icebergs flowing out of Greenland," Rignot told me in an email. "But the icebergs have also been found to be smaller in size as they break up more easily in a warmer climate."

It isn't the first year we've seen a swarm of icebergs off Canada's East coast, either. "Speaking subjectively, there have been other seasons in the recent past that have been notable for the presence of icebergs in 'unusual' locations or for the quantity of icebergs that have been observed," said CIS senior ice forecaster Scott Weese in an email.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield found that calving events are happening more often, in higher and higher latitudes. The 2014 study found that these changes do happen in cyclical episodes, but since the 1990s, calving rates have been at historically high levels. The paper concluded that "the recent past [is] an unprecedented period for high Greenland ice sheet iceberg fluxes, consistent with rapid changes in Greenland climate occurring around this time."

Read More: A Nuclear-Powered US Military Ice Base Will Resurface as the Arctic Melts

The change in iceberg patterns has been backed up by the people who live and work nearby. "[The fact that icebergs were shrinking] was first conveyed to me by a fisherman who takes tourists in Ilulissat fjord to see icebergs. Since 2002, the 'bergs are smaller," said Rignot.

Rignot explained it was difficult to track down quantifiable data of how icebergs behave on open ocean water because they disappear over time, and it's "like chasing a herd of cats," he told me.

While these towering icebergs make for a great view, they're also a looming reminder that we influence seasonal cycles. 

Gorgeous events can be hard to enjoy when it feels like the planet is giving us a grand finale.

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