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An iceberg is a large mass of free-floating ice that has broken away from a glacier. Beautiful and dangerous, icebergs wander over the ocean surface until they melt. Most icebergs come from the glaciers of Greenland or from the massive ice sheets of Antarctica. A few icebergs originate from smaller Alaskan glaciers. Snow produces the glaciers and ice sheets so, ultimately, icebergs originate from snow. In contrast, "sea ice" originates from freezing saltwater. When fragments break off of a glacier, icebergs are formed in a process called calving. Icebergs consist of freshwater ice, pieces of debris, and trapped bubbles of air. The combination of ice and air bubbles causes sunlight shining on the icebergs to refract, coloring the ice spectacular shades of blue, green, and white. Color may also indicate age; blue icebergs are old, and green ones contain algae and are young. Icebergs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, some long and flat, others towering and massive.

An iceberg floats because it is lighter and less dense than salty seawater, but only a small part of the iceberg is visible above the surface of the sea. Typically, about 80-90% of an iceberg is below sea level, so they drift with ocean currents rather than wind. Scientists who study icebergs classify true icebergs as pieces of ice which are greater than 16 ft (5 m) above sea level and wider than 98 ft (30 m) at the water line. Of course, icebergs may be much larger. Smaller pieces of floating ice are called "bergy bits" (3.3-16 ft or 1-5 m tall and 33-98 ft or 10-30 m wide) or "growlers" (less than 3.3 ft or 1 m tall and less than 33 ft or 10 m wide). The largest icebergs can be taller than 230 ft (70 m) and wider than 738 ft (225 m). Chunks of ice more massive than this are called ice islands. Ice islands are much more common in the Southern Hemisphere, where they break off the Antarctic ice sheets.

Because of the unusual forms they may take, icebergs are also classified by their shape. Flat icebergs are called tabular. Icebergs which are tall and flat are called blocky. Domed icebergs are shaped like a turtle shell, rounded, with gentle slopes. Drydock icebergs have been eroded by waves so that they are somewhat U-shaped. Perhaps the most spectacular are the pinnacle icebergs, which resemble mountain tops, with one or more central peaks reaching skyward.

The life span of an iceberg depends on its size but is typically about two years for icebergs in the Northern Hemisphere. Because they are larger, icebergs from Antarctica may last for several more years. Chief among the destructive forces that work against icebergs are wave action and heat. Wave action can break icebergs into smaller pieces and can cause icebergs to knock into each other and fracture. Relatively warm air and water temperature gradually melt the ice. Because icebergs float, they drift with water currents towards the equator into warmer water. Icebergs may drift as far as 8.5 mi (14 km) per day. Most icebergs have completely melted by the time they reach about 40 degrees latitude (north or south). There have been rare occasions when icebergs have drifted as far south as Bermuda (32 degrees north latitude), which is located about 900 mi (1,400 km) east of Charleston, South Carolina. In the Atlantic Ocean, they have also been found as far east as the Azores, islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Spain.

An iceberg struck and sank the R.M.S. Titanic on April 14, 1912, when the great ship was on her maiden voyage; more than 1,500 people lost their lives in that disaster, which occurred near Newfoundland, Canada. As a result of the tragedy, the Coast Guard began monitoring icebergs to protect shipping interests in the North Atlantic sea lanes. Counts of icebergs drifting into the North Atlantic shipping lanes vary from year to year, with little predictability. During some years, no icebergs drift into the lanes; other years are marked by hundreds or more—as many as 1,572 have been counted in a single year. Many ships now carry their own radar equipment to detect icebergs. In 1959, a Danish ship equipped with radar struck an iceberg and sank, resulting in 95 deaths. Some ships even rely on infrared sensors from airplanes and satellites. Sonar is also used to locate icebergs.

An iceberg in Disko Bay on the western coast of Greenland. Photograph by Tom Stewart The Stock Market. Reproduced by permission.

Modern iceberg research continues to focus on improving methods of tracking and monitoring icebergs, and on learning more about iceberg deterioration. In 1995, a huge iceberg broke free from the Larsen ice shelf in Antarctica. This iceberg was 48 mi (77 km) long, 23 mi (37 km) wide, and 600 ft (183 m) thick. The monster was approximately the size of the country of Luxembourg and isolated James Ross Island (one of Antarctica's islands) for the first time in recorded history. The megaberg was monitored by airplanes and satellites to make sure it did not put ships at peril. According to some scientists, this highly unusual event could be evidence of global warming. Surges in the calving of icebergs known as Heinrich events are also known to be caused by irregular motions of Earth around the Sun that cause ocean waters of varying temperatures and salinity to change their circulation patterns. These cycles were common during the last glacial period, and glacial debris was carried by "iceberg armadas" to locations like Florida and the coast of Chile. Scientists have "captured" icebergs for study including crushing to measure their strength. During World War II, plans were made to make floating airfields from flat-topped bergs (but this never got past the planning stage). Some people have proposed towing icebergs to drought-stricken regions of the world to solve water shortage problems; however, the cost and potential environmental impact of such an undertaking have so far discouraged any such attempts.



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Lewis, E.O., B.W. Currie, and S. Haykin. Detection and Classification of Ice. Letchworth, England: Research Studies Press, 1987.

Sharp, R. P. Living Ice: Understanding Glaciers and Glaciation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.


Ballard, R. D. "A Long Last Look at the Titanic." National Geographic (December 1986): 698-727.

Dane, M. "Icehunters." Popular Mechanics (October 1993): 76-79.

Monastersky, R. "Satellite Radar Keeps Tabs on Glacial Flow." Science News (December 1993): 373.

Nicklin, F. "Beneath Arctic Ice: Life at the Edge." National Geographic (July 1991): 2-31.

Raney, R. K. "Probing Ice Sheets with Imaging Radar." Science 262 (1993):1521-1522.

Steger, W. "Six across Antarctica: Into the Teeth of the Ice." National Geographic (November 1990): 67-95.

Vogt, P. R., and K. Crane. "Megabergs Left Scars in Arctic." Science News (August 1994): 127.

Elaine Martin


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—The process in which huge chunks of ice or icebergs break off from ice shelves and sheets or glaciers to form icebergs.

Ice island

—A thick slab of floating ice occupying an area as large as 180 sq mi (460 sq km).

Ice sheet

—Glacial ice covering at least 19,500 sq mi (50,000 sq km) of land and obscuring the landscape below it.

Ice shelf

—That section of an ice sheet that extends into the sea a considerable distance and which may be partially afloat.

Sea ice

—Ice that forms from the freezing of salt water; as the saltwater freezes, it ejects salt, so sea ice is fresh, not salty. Sea ice forms in relatively thin layers, usually no more than 3–7 ft (1–2 m) thick, but it can cover vast areas of the ocean surface at high latitudes.

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