Lifting the Fog over Greenland

NWF   |   July 17, 2007

Ilulissat, Greenland: We are on the world’s largest island that happens to hold the second largest reservoir of frozen fresh water on the planet. More than 80 percent ice covered, Greenland is a misnomer for the vast ice dome reaching more than two miles in depth and covering an area about the size of the Gulf of Mexico. The ice has been accumulating on this island for tens of thousands of years.

We are lodging in the fishing village of Ilulissat at the mouth of the Jakobshavn Fjord and glacier. This massive glacier is about 4 miles wide and several thousand feet thick. Discharging 11 cubic miles of ice a year, this glacier is considered “the most productive” in the Northern Hemisphere in terms of ice flow.

The Jakobshavn glacier has long spawned the largest icebergs to the North Atlantic and is believed to have been the source of that notorious iceberg that ripped a gash in the ill-fated Titanic a century ago. The out-flowing ice in the Jakobshavn is flowing twice as fast as it was a decade ago. It’s “tongue” has retreated 4 miles since 2000 and the ice outflow is now moving at a rate of 120 feet each day plugging the Ilulissat harbor with random-sized chunks of ice.

Satellite radar measurements taken across the southern half of Greenland reveal that melting on most glaciers in the region are accelerating dramatically. Dr. Eric Rignot got my attention back in 2005 when he calculated that Greenland was losing 54 cubic miles of ice each year which is double the volume of a decade ago.

The 4th IPCC report in projecting expected sea level rise left the water volumes from Greenland (and Antarctica) out of the reprojections because Rignot’s numbers were far more than many scientists had expected. Enough doubters prevented its inclusion into the IPPC calculations. Other scientists fear that once the floating ice in the fjords clears, land-based ice will be unleashed in dramatic fashion.

What we know is this. Perched between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Ocean, Greenland’s ice-covering is melting far faster than expected. How fast it is melting and how it behaves when melting accelerates continues to be the question on scientist’s minds on this day of our visit. It’s a question that should be on everyone’s mind. After all if the ice on Greenland goes, sea levels around the world will go up 23 feet. The future of every coastal city and every coastal environment on the planet rests with the answers.

I can’t help but wonder why so big a question has so few scientists on the ground. Why are we not more concerned?

As the fog lifts this morning, we will be hiking on the Jakobshavn glacier and tonight we will float among the clutter of icebergs in the jammed Ilulissat harbor at the seaward end of the fjord. I hope to get first-hand observations of its changing conditions from old-timers who have spent a lifetime looking at these waters.

Published: July 17, 2007