Ice in Gulf of St. Lawrence thickest it’s been in years

Gary Kean
Published on February 18, 2014

After several years of less than average — even record-setting — levels, the sea ice off Newfoundland and Labrador’s coast is back with a vengeance.

When it comes to measuring sea ice, the Canadian Coast Guard compares the ice in any given winter to the average levels that have been experienced in the last 30 years.

Looking at the latest ice charts, the Northern Peninsula of the island of Newfoundland is socked in. The sea ice is jammed into the Strait of Belle Isle and it extends southward into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, all the way to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and the coastlines of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.

The lone exception in the latest charts mapped out last Friday was a portion of open water in St. George’s Bay, which is sheltered from the ice flow by the Port au Port Peninsula to the north.

On the eastern coastlines of the province, the ice extends far out into the Atlantic Ocean from Labrador all the way down to Trinity Bay on the Avalon Peninsula.

Two of the main factors that determine sea ice levels are the cold temperatures and wind direction. Paul Veber, the Canadian Coast Guard’s superintendent of ice operations, said the persistent freezing cold and a recent break in windy weather has allowed ice to build up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“We went a period of about a week and a half or so with very little wind to speak of,” said Veber. “When we get light winds, it allows the ice to thicken up without deteriorating.When you get thin ice and a storm blows through, it causes that ice to go.”

The winds of late have been predominantly from the west. That has forced the ice that has formed to be pushed up against the western coast of Newfoundland.

The ice along the west coast, said Veber, is anywhere from 30 to 75 centimetres thick.

“Based on the 30-year average, we were well below that for the last five years or so,” explained Veber. “Right now, we are about 10 to 12 days ahead of the average, so we have more ice concentration now than we would typically have.”

With the wind creating a lot of ice pressure on the western coast, that also means the ice is comparatively lighter both on the lower shore of Quebec and on the eastern coast of the Northern Peninsula.

The thick ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has been creating problems for the ferry that runs between Blanc Sablon, Que. and western Newfoundland. In addition, Sunday night’s stormy weather reduced visibility to nil and actually forced a suspension of the Canadian Coast Guard’s escort of the MV Sir Robert Bond as it sailed towards Corner Brook from Blanc Sablon.

“When you have heavy ice conditions and you can’t see the ship to the stern of you, it makes for a difficult situation,” Veber said of the icebreaker Henry Larsen’s decision to suspend its escort of the ferry.

“You don’t want the icebreaker to become stuck all of a sudden and the have escort behind you, that you can’t see, still barrelling down on you.”

The Bond arrived in Corner Brook around 6:30 p.m. Monday and was scheduled to depart again for Blanc Sablon at 11 p.m.

Another shift in the winds can easily make the opposite side of the Gulf more difficult to navigate. After two significant weather systems passed through the region this past weekend, the coast guard was back taking stock of the constantly changing conditions Monday.

“We are trying to determine where the most difficult ice is located, so we can work with shipping to go around the heavy ice and find the most efficient way to operate and the safest way to transit,” said Veber.

Besides the Bond, only a ferry that services the lower north shore of Quebec regularly operates in the northern part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the winter months.