Giant icebergs in Canada crowd shipping lanes and attract tourists

Rogue icebergs mess up ship routes
Rogue icebergs mess up ship routes 04:37

Last Updated Apr 25, 2017 8:45 PM EDT

NEWFOUNDLAND, Canada -- In the eastern-most area in North America, sea ice has made life difficult for many who cross the waters along the coast. They are crowding Canada's so-called Iceberg Alley, forcing cargo ships to find new routes and attracting tourists who want to see them up close.

The Canadian Coast Guard said they've been called to break vessels from the ice 85 times so far this year. The U.S. Coast Guard leads an international effort to spot potential danger, and on Monday, CBS News correspondent Jeff Glor and his team went along with them.

An icebergs in Canada's so-called Iceberg Alley CBS News

The C-130J in hangar four at the St. John's International Airport comes out only when conditions are right. In weather-beaten Newfoundland and Labrador, that's not often. As we boarded, we saw how every moment matters for the International Ice Patrol.

"The goal of this flight is just to get a general overview of the iceberg population in this area," said Gabrielle McGrath, the U.S. Coast Guard commander leading the patrol. It's a coalition of 17 nations first formed in 1913 -- a year after the Titanic's maiden voyage was doomed by an iceberg.  

Cmdr. Gabrielle McGrath of the U.S. Coast Guard CBS News

"In the last 104 years, any vessel heeding our warnings has stayed safe from the danger of iceberg collision," McGrath said.

This mission is about identifying and tracking the biggest and most dangerous formations. Signals from a buoy -- flowing with the icebergs -- can be tracked immediately from the patrol's operation center in New London, Connecticut.

"What it will do is it will track the sea surface temperature and the currents at the depth of 50 meters which we consider to be the driving depth of the icebergs," McGrath said.

The operation center is handling a fourth-straight "extreme" season for icebergs. There are about 660 icebergs right now, but at this time of the year, McGrath said they see an average of around 212.

"Three times as many," McGrath said.

And there's more on its way.

View of the Newfoundland icebergs from above CBS News

This year, the hulking white mountains crowding Iceberg Alley were brought in part by two extraordinary weather systems in late March.

"We had a low-pressure system that moved south of the island of Newfoundland, and it had sustained hurricane-force winds for a three-day period that went through and really cooled those icebergs down south through the Labrador Current. So we had in just a week period, it went from 37 icebergs in the shipping lane up to 455," McGrath said.

It produced spectacular images, but has also loosened all this sea ice, which has clogged the world's busiest shipping pipeline.

"This is something our ships have been dealing with for many years," said Aslak Ross, head of marine standards for Maersk Line.

"We operate big ships and our safety is priority hence we really try to avoid the areas of icebergs," Ross aid. "It is definitely something that needs to be considered in safe navigation."

Beyond the icebergs, the sheets of sea ice are crippling the fishing business and stranding large ferries. These planes fly just 500 feet above the ocean surface to give iceberg observers a clear view. A 360-degree radar under the nose also picks up potential dangers.

The sights can be as sublime. They've drawn tourists from around the world to this unique island province. But as commander, McGrath knows, the danger is ever-present.

"The worse-case scenario you're trying to prevent is another Titanic?" Glor asked.

"Exactly right. Every day, that's something that keep in our minds at ice patrol, every day, is the disaster that happened back in 1912, and we strive to provide the best ice information possible," McGrath said.

The International Ice Patrol identified 382 icebergs on Monday's flight. Peak season is not until May and June.