Newfoundland: A Treacherous Coastline

Newfoundland coastlineThe area along the southeastern part of the Avalon Peninsula in the vicinity of Cape Race is notorious for shipwrecks for several reasons.  Over the past three centuries the waters along this coastline has been heavily trafficked by ships traveling between Europe and North America, as well as fishing boats plying the fertile waters of the Grand Banks. 

However, the geology, weather, and ocean currents combine to make it particularly treacherous for navigation. It is in this vicinity that the west branch of the Labrador Current, coming in from the north through the Avalon Channel, mixes with water coming in from the Gulf of St. Lawrence through the Cabot Strait.  This mixing, combined with shifting tides and strong winds coming off the land, causes rough seas and tricky currents.  It also affects weather patterns in the area, which is frequently (as we’ve seen) completely socked in with dense fog.  Add to this the local geology, which consists of thick sedimentary beds that in some places slope down into the water like an elongated boat ramp, creating shallows and breaking waves extending out from the cliffs above.  The rock also breaks off in large chunks, forming sea caves in some places, leaving underwater hazards.  Because this is such an active coastline, coastal navigation is often difficult even with the most accurate navigational chart.

On the peninsula to the west of here, called the Burin Peninsula, the regional geology caused a tragedy of another sort.  In November 1929, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake centered under the edge of the Grand Banks triggered a huge underwater landslide that created a rare North Atlantic tsunami.  The tsunami, which came in three waves, destroyed several south coastal communities, killing 28 people and leaving another 10,000 homeless in the process.  It also severed or damaged several kilometers of 12 transatlantic cables in the area, and ruined fishing boats and salt cod waiting for shipment.  This was the largest recorded loss of life directly caused by an earthquake in Canada’s history. 

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JASON Learning: A Partnership of Sea Research Foundation and National Geographic