I first traveled to Greenland in 1993 when the seasonal sea ice was 10 to 14 feet thick and the Greenland ice sheet hadn’t “thought” of melting. Arriving in Ummannaaq in the summer, I returned the next winter in the dark time, then returned again almost every year thereafter.
Soon I was traveling by dogsled on seasonal sea ice with subsistence hunters in the two northernmost villages in the world. We never imagined that sea level might rise of 70 feet, having grown up in a stable inter-glacial period; we had forgotten that Earth and its waters had undergone violent and extreme upheavals, periods of volcanism, ice, drought and flooding in the past, enough to cause mass extinctions and enormous changes not only to the planet, but to the “nations” of animals and humans who have resided here.
Twenty years after my first visit to Greenland, I returned to Greenland with my partner, Neal Conan, who recorded and narrated the sounds of the Jacobshavn Glacier melting and calving, and to contemplate the demise of ice which is the natural air conditioner of the world.
The following are some of my notes from this adventure.
Ilulissat — August 9, 2013
Two days ago, Neal and I left the burning forehead of the Wind River Mountains in front of our Wyoming cabin as we made our way to the west central coast of Greenland, to its singular mountain of ice, 11,000 feet high.
Once I thought of the ice sheet as a jewel, diamond-like and hard. Now, according to climatologist, Jason Box, who we met in Copenhagen, the Greenland ice sheet is melting at an accelerated pace.
“It’s not just surface melt,” he says, “but the deformation of inner ice. I’m tracking multiple feedbacks and connecting the dots. Beyond surface ice melt and the natural drainpipes called moulins, there’s a drawdown of the inner ice caused by impurities like soot and ash that darken the snow and ice, and thus reduce the albedo effect, and cause melting everywhere, inside and out. I call it my ‘Dark Snow Project.’ The whole fabric of the ice sheet is coming apart. Three hundred billion tons of ice is lost each year.”
Flying to Ilulissat from Kangerlusuuaq: green valleys, bare swipes of granite. Polished slabs pocked with the blue eyes of kettle ponds. Ice-blue meltwater. Green milk. Water from between the toes of hundreds of glaciers oozing down from the ice sheet that covers most of Greenland.
Glacial flour thickens. Meltwater is cerulean, then a blue so pale it seems like vanishing smoke. Just before landing we fly over a thick white ribbon of rough ice, studded with broken icebergs as if an entire city had collapsed and its rubble was being push toward the sea.
This is the Jacobshavn Glacier, whose collapse and accelerated calving rate has made it a World Heritage Site, as if to celebrate the death of this ice-island and the 5,000 year old Inuit culture that, against all odds, has thrived here.
Welcome to Ilulissat.
Ice is time. We’ve turned the clock forward, then back as we traveled from Wyoming to Copenhagen, then halfway back across the Atlantic Ocean to Greenland. The ice sheet used to be smooth, with large crevasses, and plains of snow-covered ice. Now it looks as if it had been shattered by a huge sledge hammer. The chaotic fracturing of an ice sheet and its glaciers is the signature of fast movement, of time squeezed, hastened, and released. To move glacially no longer implies “slowness,” but rather, the skidding forward of an ice sheet whose ravaged face keeps giving itself away.
We board a small plane, piloted by Matthias, to fly over the ice sheet and see the face of the Jacobshavn Glacier. Below are icy cathedrals, shaped pieces of glass, fresh blue walls, strangled icebergs with rounded corners and meltwater dropping from their sun-ravaged wings like pieces of turquoise. For half an hour we traverse a wilderness of deeply sliced ice with dirty crevasses, blue slits, then on a slab of granite, a halved iceberg lying on its side as if thrown there and abandoned.
Finally we can see the face of the glacier itself, so far back it seems to have been torn from an unworldly landscape, all irregular blue teeth. There is no single line of ice, but a cubist face, roughly torn, and too wide to take it all in at one glance….
“From here on we’ll follow the fjord out to the sea,” Matthias says. Ahead is 103 miles of ice rubble, a carcass glinting with narrow stripes of turquoise. Down we go in a river of ice, a river that seems not to move at all, but does. Fingers of granite look liquid compared to the clotted ice-way.
Now there’s ocean ahead—-Disko Bay. Soon the strangled icebergs will be able to break off and drift freely. I see an iceberg crack open, its blue interior revealed. Displaced sea water glints in late afternoon sun. Water streams flow from many directions in a mesmerizing chaos. Chips of light dissolve: here we are at the end of time.
The people of Greenland, the Inuit, originally came from northeastern Siberia over 20,000 years ago. They walked and boated across the Bering Land Bridge and the seas that surrounded it with their spears and harpoons, their pack-dogs and skin boats. Slowly they moved across the polar north, from Point Hope, Alaska over frozen tundra to the MacKenzie Delta, across the entire Canadian Archipelago, now known as Nunavut, finally to Greenland.
A single culture; a single language with many dialects; the same legends and taboos; the same material culture with local variations and improvements, as dynamic as the ice, yet singular.
Greenland was the last Arctic nation to have come into the 21st century with much of its traditional hunting culture in tact. “We had everything,” Jens Danielsen said. “We speak only Greenlandic, we’ve kept our traditional hunting practices. We banned snowmobiles and travel only by Greenland-style dogsleds, hunt narwhal in the summer from kayaks with harpoons, wear polar bear pants and foxfur anoraks and sealskin kamiks. We make almost everything ourselves. All that we know is passed on to our children. Now it is being lost because of this new unstable climate. We are sending our children who were raised to be great hunters to the south of Greenland, below the Arctic Circle to learn a trade.
“We were taught to be modest in front of the weather. But this weather is not ours. Nine months of ice is now two or three. Eight years ago I said that it would be a disaster if we lost our ice. Now we have. Without ice we are nothing at all.”
In the afternoon Neal and I walk from town up to the edge of the fjord. It’s here that we first understand the scale of the calved ice. Think warehouse, a city-block of ice, carved and port-holed, its broken sides polished and scratched as if silver threads had been sewn through it.
Under the arm of one berg, a row of candle ice tinkles. We’ve come here to listen to the way ice moves. Its cries and salutations. The sun roars around its elliptical route, now headed north. We sit on the granite cliff. In front of us, an enormous iceberg shines. Its base is smooth but it is topped with jagged ice, pointed slabs thrown together. Two thumping roars jolt us. The tide is going out. Ice-elbows slide and collapse.
A breeze comes up. Accordioned waves slap the cliff and are sent backwards. Ice streams pour out. A distant seagull cries and cries. Water moves in two directions simultaneously. Another tympanic sound. Like something hollow. Ice moves in a seeming motionless drift in tidal pulses we can only begin to detect. Muffled booms. We see nothing. Thunder emanates from deep inside the ice as if to verify all that Jason Box told us. We are all dying from the internal combustion of age and sunlight. Grinding and sloshing, turquoise ice returns to its liquid form.
End of day
An island of ice slides through the shadow of a bigger iceberg into the silvered evening light like a sword. Something snaps. Thunderous roar. Shhhhh….we are listening to glacier-talk: its howls and pops, its detonations and sonic death-throes.
By tourist boat north. A whale breaches. Gulls fly over, checking to see if we have halibut on board. Flocks of Arctic terns gather over coastal valleys and soar toward the Eqi Glacier. Here, we come very close to is calving face.
The Captain turns off the engines. We listen: there’s the sound of rustling skirts. To our left an iceberg turns over. Displaced water rolls under us. Slabs of pale sapphire shoot up out of the water. Then it’s quiet. The boat jostles. A sound begins. A sound so loud it is almost white noise. We look. Where is it coming from?
To starboard a 300 ft. wall of ice begins to collapse..…shushhhhhhshushhhhhhshushhhhhhhh….. Now another one to port…. Two enormous walls as if two sides of a building was being demolished. Ice slides straight down into the sea….. shushhhshhshshshhshshhhhhhhhh. Two huge waves come at the boat. Big rolling humps….
I yell—“We should move back…this is dangerous.” But the captain only smiles. The boat heaves up, slaps down into the deep trough, and heaves up again. Bits of ice teeter on top and hit the steel hull. The water goes pale with glacial flour. Ice streams pour out and move icebergs toward and away from us. The deck does not flatten…we rock and roll as glacial till keeps slapping us. Sun fades behind a roll of mist. Glitter and chalk as bits of ice crumble from the new glacial face. We move away. Then we’re encased by a dull shroud.
The water smoothes out. Ahead, sun marks the way forward as we motor toward home. Behind us a fogbow marks the passageway through which we have journeyed, with its collapsing walls of ice and sounds of melting, but the arch of fog, the gateless gate, follows us all the way down the coast as if being towed.