Well, for all of Mel’s talk about storms, the Arctic Sunrise finally encountered got a couple of real ones of the meteorological kind. Right now, we’re somewhere east of Greenland, somewhere north of Iceland in the Fram Strait. Grey sky and greyer seas surround us, and there’s a hint of iceblink on the horizon, where the sea ice is reflecting onto the clouds. As the swells drop and normality returns, Arctic Sunrise suddenly seems more crowded than usual. During the bad weather, the ship seemed deserted. Many people were staggering a swift line between their bunk and the toilet; with seasickness, even when there’s nothing left to divulge, the stomach just keeps on being interrogated about its alleged contents.
This was the expedition’s second run of bad weather in less than a week. Last Wednesday, after departing the east Greenland port of Tasiilaq, we spent the day battering head on into a force 9 gale – which even gusted up 65 knots (force 11) at times. I spent too long looking at my laptop in the morning, and nearly succumbed to the popular pastime of regurgitation; I decided it was more fun to hang out on the bridge, shooting video of waves hitting the windows, or filming inanimate objects swinging back and forth in the empty messroom.
On Thursday we ducked into Kangerdlugssuaq Fjord, home to calm waters and the fastest moving glacier in Greenland. It’s the fourth major glacier on our voyage around Greenland, and I was struck by how different the surrounding environment appears to each one. Different light, different climate, different landscape, different shapes to the icebergs. I’ve been slagged off for still getting excited by icebergs, after months of looking at them. But there’s no two the same… I swear.
And each glacier is different too. We spent the end of last week right up inside Kangerdlugssuaq fjord near the glacier itself, the ship completely surrounded by a stew of glacial debris. On Friday night, while the northern lights flickered dimly overhead, and no open water visible, it was tempting to assume that it was possible to step on to the ice. It was a foolish dream – we would have gone straight down through the chunks of fresh water ice, into the salty fjord water, and never be seen again.
Helheim and Kangerdlugssuaq glaciers deliver about 10% of the total flow of ice from Greenland’s ice sheet into the ocean; their contribution to sea level rise – last estimated in 2006, was about 10% of the worldwide total. Greenland’s total contribution to sea level rise is thought to be about 30%, or about 1mm of the currently 3mm or so rise. Greenland’s contribution to sea level rise has doubled over the last seven years – and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.
On board the Arctic Sunrise, Dr Gordon Hamilton, from the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, tells me that between 2004 and 2005, Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier trebled the rate at which it moves fresh water ice to the ocean. That was an increase of 5km to 14km every year, or 38 metres every day a velocity that it still maintains. You can, apparently, see it moving with the naked eye. If you wait long enough, you’ll see the glaciers dumping thousands of tonnes into the ocean.
While it was previously generally assumed that the speeding up of glaciers was due to only to surface melting, it’s recently been realised that glaciers like Helheim and Kangerdlugssuaq (and Petermann and Humboldt), which terminate in deep fjords and extend several hundreds of meters below sea level, could be accelerated by the intrusion of warm subtropical water from farther south. Until now, very little was known about this phenomenon, an issue that Dr. Fiamma Straneo of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and her team are on board to study. Melanie has discussed the details of this scientific work in earlier blogs, so I won’t go into it in too much detail; suffice to say, much of the work carried out in Sermilik Fjord was repeated at Kangerdlugssuaq – the water in the fjord itself was studied for signs of subtropical origin. Personally, I find it fascinating that water can actually have a fingerprint, and a story to tell about its origins.
Right now we’re steaming for the rather prosaically named 79 Glacier (which is actually at 79 degrees north). Arne is steering us a course that takes us north, and east of the long finger of sea ice that extends south from the Arctic Ocean, before we make our way west towards the glacier. 79 is another of Greenland’s massive glaciers, pouring out from the heart of the ice sheet, pouring out through desert-like mountains into the Fram Strait. It’s a bit like Petermann, having a long, 80km long floating tongue. It’s unlike Helheim and Kangerdlugssuaq in that, as of yet, there’s been no real sign of it speeding up due to climate change. The scientists on board plan on using 79 as a benchmark, or “control group” that will help them monitor the effects of climate change if and when they kick in, while keeping a comparison between the un-activated glacier and its companions further south.
Outside the Arctic Sunrise’s office window, there’s a thick sea fog, and a slack sea. Shards of first year sea ice are drifting by. After a few months around Greenland, we’ve become used to the cold, but were spoiled by the nearly constant sunshine. Now it’s damp, icy, and we’ve not seen the sun in days. We’re wandering back towards Ultima Thule again – the Farthest North, where the lines of longitude grow closer together.