On first look, Canada’s North Atlantic coast is frigid and timeless, rocky cliffs and the occasional wandering icebergs the only variations on a grey horizon called the Grand Banks. One notable exception: an island-sized mass of steel and concrete. This is Hibernia, the biggest offshore oil platform in the world. It’s as tall as a skyscraper and weighs nearly 60,000 tons; the sort of singular, ambitious megaproject born as a leap-of-faith.
The Grand Banks were once coastal islands, a glacier-topped archipelago in the most recent ice age. The planet warmed, sea levels rose, and the Banks sunk below the Atlantic. Those islands became underwater plateaus, creating a tray of warm shallow seas that collide with deep-water currents. The turmoil is constant, churning up the nutrient-packed seabed into a utopian ecosystem for fish.
When European ships arrived in the 15th-century they found cod populations so dense that baskets lowered into the water would come back packed with fish. Newfoundland, the closest large island still afloat, was promptly colonized as a home base for trawlers. By the 1970s, the cod had been eradicated, and the now-Canadian province of Newfoundland drowned in debt and unemployment. Newfoundlanders had little clue how to survive without fish.
The first serious recovery scheme followed the detection of oil beneath the Grand Banks, as if Newfoundland were fated to thrive as a parasite of the depths. Champagne flowed in 1997 when an oil platform was towed and placed 200 miles offshore. It was christened Hibernia, recycling Ireland’s Latin name from antiquity. The structure is propped on tall pillars set into the rocks below, actually a sunken island of the Grand Banks long since forgotten.
Now, 200 people live and work on Hibernia’s scaffolds in freezing temperatures and punishing winds. Four hundred miles away lies the wreck of the Titanic, and a fear of icebergs still loom, although it’s claimed that the platform can withstand a direct impact, thanks to a saw-toothed barrier intended to split any berg that gets too close.
Little comfort to the workers who stare into the impenetrable fog around their manufactured home. Hibernia’s lifespan is only anticipated to last until 2027, when oil reserves will run out. Few expect to see the cod return