"We thought we were alone in the world", is what a Polar Inuit hunter is said to have told South Greenlander John Sacheuse, official interpreter on 1818 expedition to Greenland led by Captain John Ross. Or so the story goes – some have questioned the accuracy of Sacheuse’s translation of the man’s statement, so different were their dialects. The most northern society in the world had been cut off from everyone south of them for hundreds, or thousands of years, so they could be forgiven for feeling "alone".
Whatever the truth behind that quote, the crew of the Arctic Sunrise can empathise with its essence. If it wasn’t for our dripfeed of emails and the occasional phone call on our Iridium satellite phone, the rest of the world’s population might as well not exist.
Remember those old movies, pre-Jurassic Park, about lands that time forgot, or valleys of dinosaurs, or however many years BC? For every movie based on the works of Jules Verne or HG Wells, then a dozen B-Movies shamelessly ransacked them and the hired actor Doug McClure as the 'hero'.
Petermann Fjord has that feeling of being outside time. A mammoth or some sabre-toothed beast might appear in silhouette on the1000m high limestone cliffs that flank each side of the 16km wide tongue of Petermann Glacier – the floating mass of ice that stretches 80km back towards Greenland's ice cap. The scarred cliffs, carved out when the glacier was larger, and higher in some distant past – give the place a prehistoric feel.
We do have neighbours: curious seals, who surface occasionally to check out the ship, ivory gulls, arctic terns, and the noisy little black guillemots (actually a kind of auk, the northern hemisphere's answer to the penguin). Richard said he saw a pintail today, and possibly a skua. No more polar bears, yet.
A couple of 'nights' ago – we're so far north here that it doesn't get dark - I was out on deck, with Captain Pete, science dude Jason, photographer Nick and "super ice-guy" Eric. All of us stood there in silence for a little while, soaking up the warm sunshine and the reflections of the tributary glaciers pouring into the still waters of Petermann Fjord. That might not be everyone's idea of a perfect Friday night, but I would guess that many of the crew of the Arctic Sunrise – especially those mentioned above, are least comfortable, if not at their happiest when they're out in the big, wide, open wild places.
The silence was finally broken by Eric joking that he "really missed Melbourne traffic". This, after all, a man who has skied to the North and South Poles. Stephen, our motion-picture maestro has just shot a short movie with Eric, which should be available soon on CNN.
The Arctic Sunrise has spent much of the last few days parked right up against the front of Petermann Glacier. At first glance, it might seem to lack the drama of other glaciers – the deck of the ship is higher than the Petermann's freeboard and another 50m or so is hidden below the water. It's hard to believe, standing on deck, that the glacier could be 16km wide – so hard is to just scale here, that the opposing cliffs seem no more than half that distance apart. However, the air is clear and dry here. Things look closer than we're used to seeing them.
From above, however, Petermann Glacier is a mindblowing sight. Intensely blue lakes and melt streams burn through the undulating white ice, while massive cracks run riot across the glacier. Two of our scientists, Jason and Alun, reckon that the glacier's major cracks have widened since our arrival in the area a week ago, and that even the difference between one day and the next is noticeable.
All predictions are leading to one big event – sometime in the coming weeks, a massive piece of Petermann's tongue, 100 square kilometres in size will break and float away.
Last year, 37 square kilometres of ice escaped. It's become known as the "Petermann Ice Island", and is still prowling around Baffin Bay, monitored carefully by Canadian authorities. When this new ice island escapes, and slips out to sea, it means that more of the 'grounded' or land-based part of the glacier could slip into the sea water and become part of the floating tongue. This has implications for both global sea level rise, as well for the Greenland ice sheet itself, best explained by the 'champagne cork' analogy– if the deterioration of Greenland's glaciers continue, it could open the way for a potentially larger release of more frozen fresh water, from the vast ice sheet that covers most of Greenland, into the ocean – thereby contributing to a major rise in sea levels.
In the past week, we've been busy putting diagnostic intruments in place that will help the three scientists on board – Jason, Alun and Richard – understand more about the multitude of climatic and other factors that are causing Petermann's disintegration. A battery of high resolution time-lapse cameras now line the cliffs over Petermann; several more are sitting on the ice itself, helping to give accurate records of the iceflow. Footage from these cameras retrieved today back up the casual observations we've been making by eye – yes, the cracks are widening – the ice could break at any time.
Sensitive GPS units are now sitting on the areas of ice that could break off, what we call A, the 100 sq km piece, as well as two more areas, known as B and C. Piece A, it seems, is hanging by a thread, and the collection of data being collected by the various threads will not only pinpoint the conditions present at the moment of the glacier's collapse, but will draw an in-depth picture of factors situation that led to it.
The Arctic Sunrise is going to spend the next few weeks here, unless, of course, the barrier holding back the Arctic Ocean's sea ice breaks, flooding the Nares Strait with floes, forcing us to take evasive action. We'll be here waiting, watching, recording and exploring. We may feel a million miles away from the rest of the world, but we'll be telling the story of our lifestyles can have a direct effect on Greenland's ice cap and glaciers – and how changes in Greenland can have reverberations around the world.