I drove hundreds of miles up and down the Newfoundland coast looking for icebergs. When I spotted an iceberg in close, run aground on a point or in a cove, I went toward it in the car as far as I could and then hiked the rest of the way. One such hike led through meadows, down forest trails, and across slippery shoreline rocks all inclined in the same direction. Finally I got to the iceberg, which looked somewhat like a jawbone. It even had tooth-shaped serrations in the right place as it seesawed chewingly in the waves. Gulls on fixed wings shot past the headland entanglements of weather-killed trees, clouds turned in huge pinwheels above, waves crashed, the iceberg chewed. I had forgotten to bring water and my mouth was dry.
Among the small channels and troughs in the rocks, iceberg fragments were washing back and forth. I leaned down and scooped out a flat, oval piece about ten inches long. The sea had rounded and smoothed the hard, clear ice like a sea-smoothed stone. In it were tiny bubbles of air that had been trapped among fallen snowflakes millennia ago; the air had eventually become bubbles as later snowfalls compressed the snow to ice. Bubbles in icebergs are what cause them to reflect white light. Almost certainly, this piece of ice originally was part of the Greenland ice cap. A glacier like the Jakobshavn Glacier on Greenland's western coast probably calved this ice into Baffin Bay, where it may have remained for a year or more until currents took it north and then south into the Labrador Current, which brought it here.
I licked the ice, bit off a piece. It broke sharply and satisfyingly, like good peanut brittle. At places the Greenland ice cap is two miles thick. Climatologists have taken core samples clear through it. Chemical analysis of the ice and the air bubbles in these cores provide a picture of climate and atmosphere during the past 110,000 years. For a period covering all of recorded human history, the Greenland ice timeline is so exact that scientists can identify specific events with strata in the core sample—the year Vesuvius buried Pompeii, say, marked by chemical remnants of the Vesuvian eruption. In ice core samples dating from the Golden Age of Greece, they've found trace amounts of lead, dispersed into the atmosphere by early smelting processes and carried to Greenland on the winds. Lead traces in the ice increase slowly from Greek and Roman times, stay at about the same level during the Middle Ages, go up a lot after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, crest during the 20th century, with its leaded automobile fuels, and drop way off after the introduction of unleaded gasoline. Chemicals and other residues in the Greenland ice cores told scientists about temperatures, droughts, the coming and going of ice ages—more about paleoclimates than they had ever known. In particular, they showed how unstable global climate has been, how abruptly it sometimes changed, and how oddly mild and temperate were the recent few thousand years in which people developed civilization.
Scientifically useful concentrations of chemicals don't affect the purity of Greenland ice. Devices that measure impurities in parts per million usually register none in iceberg ice; to find substances other than air and water in it, measurement must be in smaller concentrations, like parts per billion or per trillion. As I sucked the iceberg piece, contemplating its ancientness, trying to taste the armor of Caesar or the ash of Krakatoa in infinitesimal traces, the pristine cold water seemed to evaporate through my membranes with no intervening stage. Before I finished the fragment, my thirst was gone.
DENNY CHRISTAIN, director of technical support for the Center for Cold Ocean Resource Engineering (C-CORE) in St. John's, is an iceberg guy. Whenever I asked around on the subject of icebergs, his name came up. C-CORE is a company that handles extreme-conditions research-and-development problems, many having to do with oceanic ice. Denny Christian has photographed icebergs, towed them, measured them, and done experiments on them. When he was younger he used to put crampons on his feet and climb on them. With other ice technicians he has landed on them in helicopters and shut the engines down and walked around; he told me he would never do anything so reckless today. A few years ago, against his better judgment, he ferried out two scientists who wanted to climb on a berg and helped them aboard. Then he stood off in his skiff and watched. He heard a noise, saw some of the iceberg come out of the sea, and the next thing he knew the scientists were clinging to the side of the ice they'd been standing on, 50 feet above the waterline. In another few seconds, the berg had gone over on top of them. By luck and quick boat-handling he was able to fish them out alive.
Denny Christian is tall, stoop-shouldered, snub-nosed, in his mid-sixties. His ancestors were Norwegian. When he strongly wishes to make a point, he widens his eyes with an attention-getting, Norwegian ferocity; other than that, his manner is laconic and mild. Usually he has the stoic patience you get from being around the unobligingness of nature. The only person he ever threw out of his office was a man who went on in great detail about a scheme he had to tow icebergs someplace or other with a submarine he planned to buy. Listening to crazy iceberg schemes is a recurring part of Denny Christian's job.
He and I sat in his office talking icebergs and going through folders of iceberg photos he has taken in his 20 years at C-CORE. The icebergs came in every category of shape and featured many natural parodies of architectural styles from caveman days to now. Some bergs suggested cliff dwellings, some castles; some were like fortresses, or space needles, or ultramodern Jetsons-type mansions in Beverly Hills. A striking iceberg that I had seen photos of before had two foothill eminences joined at the top by a soaring St. Louis Gateway Arch of ice. I stopped at a photo of a large tabular berg with men in red carrying chainsaws and clambering on it.
"These guys were some French environmentalists who wanted to carve a big iceberg in the shape of a whale with other endangered species riding on its back, and then send it down the East Coast of America to make a point about saving the environment," Denny said. "I helped them with the project, but I told 'em, 'You better wear these bright-red life jackets so we can find you if you fall in and die.'" His eyes went wide. "Fortunately the Gulf War came along about that time and their money ran out, and we never heard from them again."
Right now most of the work Denny does at C-CORE is for a group of oil companies that have drilling platforms in the North Atlantic about 350 miles east of St. John's. The oil drillers are worried about icebergs crashing into their platforms or sinking their tankers. Among other problems, C-CORE studies the likelihood of iceberg impacts, how damaging they might be, and how to avert them. Two summers ago Denny harnessed some small icebergs and smashed them into a steel panel rigged with instruments, to learn more about such collisions. Recently he has been studying the iceberg-tracking effectiveness of high-frequency radar that can see over the horizon out to about 250 miles. Every so often he charters a plane and flies out to check the radar's accuracy with his own eyes. When he told me he planned to take one of these "ground-truthing" flights in the next day or two, I asked if I could go along.