Iceberg study off Canada seeks wide berth for oilmen

Iceberg. The very name has a blunt feel, like the rounded end of a ball-peen hammer. The crystalline behemoths express at once brute force and beauty. Although geometric wonders, they can become irritable if something gets in their way - misanthropes adrift at sea.

Today scientists tucked away in tiny cubicles in this northeastern Canadian city are trying to discover just what makes icebergs tick. In fact, isolated St. John's is slowly carving out a reputation as one of the world's leading centers for cold ocean research.

Spurred by a flourish of oil exploration in the frigid waters off Newfoundland and to the north of Canada, dozens of companies are studying icebergs, pack ice, and the permafrost phenomenon - some of the last obstacles in the way of their search for more energy.

In fact, over the next decade oil companies are projected to spend as much as much of it in frigid Artic areas.

Perched at the eastern tip of Canada, this historic seaport city of flat-roofed clapboard houses and rabbit-warren streets seems a ready-made laboratory for such research. It sits at the southern end of ''iceberg alley'' - a sort of oceanic cul-de-sac where icebergs as big as 100-story buildings leave frozen moorings high in the Arctic and bob down the Labrador current past the island of Newfoundland.

Much of the pack ice and big ''bergs'' remain in the northern fringes, off rock-ribbed Labrador or farther north. But enough find their way down the coast to cause oilmen drilling in the Grand Banks fishing area 190 miles east of here to worry about rigs being mowed down. In 1972, for instance, 1,400 icebergs passed through the Grand Banks area, although there have been none now for two years. (Lest anyone take the iceberg threat too lightly, the Titanic rammed an iceberg and slipped to its briny tomb just south of here.)

The walls of old hotels and research centers in St. John's are festooned with pictures of the icy jewels, in all shapes and sizes, on display like Great Northern Railroad wall calendars. Other prints show a more ominous side: icebergs plugging the rock-walled entrance to the harbor, the city's main link to the outside world.

One area under study are iceberg ''scours'' - the trenches the giant cubes dig in the sea bottom. Scientists at the Center for Cold Ocean Resources Engineering (C-CORE) at Memorial University here are trying to date scours to find out how frequently they occur. Some trenches off the coast of Labrador, where icebergs have dug furrows 50 feet deep and 300 feet wide, are believed to be 10,000 years old.

Farther south, off Newfoundland, the scours run closer to 10 feet deep. All this is important to oil companies, which are studying the possibility of developing the Hibernia oil field, a reservoir in the Grand Banks area believed to hold 1.85 billion barrels of oil. Mobil Oil Canada Ltd., one partner in a consortium of companies exploring in the area, has shied away from the idea of laying a pipeline to get the oil ashore, partly out of concern about icebergs.

The company also does not want to use a ''fixed'' concrete production platform. Instead, it is leaning toward a floating rig that could be towed out of the way if an iceberg were to drift into the area. As it is now, some ice chunks are lassoed and pulled out of the way by supply boats. But there comes a point when an iceberg, which one Mobil Corporation official has described as a combination irregular sailing vessel and farmer's plow, pulls the tug more than it gets pulled. Another snag: The nylon ropes sometimes slip off the bergs. Scientists are working on ''nonslip'' cords.

Ways to better ''forecast'' iceberg floes are also being studied. By examining the prevailing wind patterns and currents, and visually inspecting ice floes by plane, researchers are trying to predict the number of icebergs that will pass through an area in a particular month. At this stage, however, the state of the art is about as clear as a fog-shrouded shipping lane.

''It is as much art as science at this point,'' says Frank Smith, president and chief executive officer of Nordco Ltd., a consulting firm that prepares forecasts. ''You only need to be wrong once.''

Another point under study: the effect of oil spills in cold water. With a commercial oil field possibly not far away, concern abounds about what a spill could do to the rich Grand Banks fishing grounds as well as the craggy Newfoundland coast. The debate hasn't reached the intensity it has over drilling in the Georges Bank off Cape Cod. But dozens of studies are under way here. The jury is still out.

Preliminary findings from one study done by C-CORE have shown that the prevailing Labrador and Gulf Stream currents would sweep the oil away from the Canadian province. ''There is a fairly good chance it would get swept out to sea ,'' says David Bazeley, a bearded C-CORE engineer. ''You might get fussy about it if you lived in Iceland.''

Oil also acts differently in cold water. For one thing, it coagulates quicker , Mr. Bazeley points out, making it hard to use the traditional ''boom and skimmer'' equipment to clean it up. The molasses-like oil becomes too thick to pump. But, he adds, there is also at least one advantage: The oil lumps together in globs, so it doesn't disperse as much in the water and may do less harm to fish.

In the future, scientists here will be learning more about pitting ship against ice. Now under construction at Memorial University is the $55.6 million (US $47.3 million) Arctic Vessel and Marine Research Institute. It will include the world's largest ice tank for testing marine vessels.

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