Helheim Glacier disintegrating

by Guest Blogger

July 25, 2005

It’s a tense morning on board. People have been working around the clock.

Hughie (heli pilot) woke up at three this morning when the light coming

through his porthole changed. The fog was lifting. Gordon and Leigh,

the University of Maine glaciologists on board, hadn’t been to sleep at

all – waiting to see if they could get out to the Helheim glacier. By

05:30 in the morning that the fog had lifted enough for Hughie and

Gordon to go scout it.

This is something of a bonus glacier. Gordon and Leigh were scheduled

to fly out from nearby Kulusuk on Sunday. But Gordon wanted to at least

take a look at the Helheim glacier since the most recent satellite image

of it is from 2001.

What he saw was dramatic enough to make them change

their flight. Helheim glacier is visibly rotten, and giant pieces of

it are calving off and floating away as it retreats. One crescent

shaped iceberg, over a hundred meters wide and roughly a kilometer long,

had recently broken away from the face. With the glacier crumbling this

badly, Gordon wasn’t sure at first if they could even conduct their

research on it, but made a decision to at least try.

After setting up the usual base camp – with emergency supplies and a

static GPS receiver on solid ground (to act as a reference point) –

Gordon and Hughie returned to the ship for refueling and to pick up

Leigh. Meanwhile, we had been sailing up the fjord through what Martina

is calling an “iceberg graveyard”. Pete (chief mate) carefully weaving

through hundreds of them – some bigger than anything we’ve seen before

on this trip.

The glaciologists didn’t wait for us though. They are under pressure to

return the precision GPS receivers because another research team is

counting on using them. They soon headed off to the


Finding safe places to land the helicopter and deploy the receivers

proved as challenging as feared. Even a kilometer and a half back from

the front, this glacier was easily the most difficult to work on yet.

As usual, Hughie never shut the helicopter down, always ready for a

quick evacuation, and most of the receivers had to be attached to ice

anchors to keep them from slipping off into a crevasse while unattended.

Now, the team is back on board, having completed their first round of

measurements. They’ll return to the glacier some hours later and

redeploy the equipment in the same locations (marked with the antenna

poles and pink flagging tape). By comparing the two data sets, they’ll

be able to see how fast the glacier ice is flowing – a critical question

for the fate of the Greenland ice sheet, which feeds these glaciers.

It’s important to learn more about how global warming is changing our

world, but it’s also important to act. If we don’t rapidly reduce our

greenhouse gas emissions by switching to renewable energy sources,

global warming is only going to get worse. If you’re in the U.S., the

world’s worst global warming polluter per capita, your help is

especially needed.

– Andrew

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