IceCam and Galloping Glaciers
by Guest Blogger
August 16, 2005
It was one of those few best days, a day that was like two or more good
ones combined. Later, I found myself thinking, was that really today or
yesterday? This life is full of wonder. Greenland is a spectacular place.
Helicopter flights took us over spectacular scenes, where colors and
scale defy comprehension. One moment you’re thinking, ‘that looks just
like the Caribbean’, then you’re jarred back to the Arctic by massive
flowing ice! This visual stimulation combined with the genuine
satisfaction of completing a goal that began so recently as a humble
idea. We had just deployed two automatic digital cameras, ‘looking’ at
huge glaciers. This morning, we had been waiting through a lengthy
application process for permission to land and leave equipment in this
World Heritage site. And just as we were losing hope, the final fax came
though, within moments we were starting the engine to go.
Arriving at the first site, the highest/furthest east land possible,
beholding a vast sea of tortured ice, Martin, Hughie and I had the
equipment up and running without a hitch. We actually couldn’t afford a
hitch. We had a maximum of 55 minutes for the work. But, it happened to
be t-shirt weather, radiant sun, just enough wind to thwart mosquitoes.
Landing at this place felt like what I imagine landing on Mars would be
like, and the equipment like an alien observer.
The flight to the next site brought us along the ‘ice front’ of this
massive Kangia/Jakobshavn glacier. But what a mess it looked, having
retreated so much in only the past few years. There is no longer a
well-defined ice cliff that drops down to water. All you see now is a
wreckage of ice with a cliff (ice front) that comes and goes. It seems
this glacier has retreated to or even behind its ‘grounding line’,
meaning it no longer has a floating part. This is a huge departure from
how I remember the glacier from my first flight over it in 1994. Since
then, I’ve seen it from the air almost each year. I remember how in
2003, we did not recognize the glacier. It had changed in its otherwise
fractal appearance of somehow organized crevasses and seracs to
practical chaos, wreckage, smithereens. Today, this glacier looks even
less healthy to me. Anyhow, I took many many photos that will help us
understand how this glacier is changing.
After being buffeted around by clear air turbulence en route to our
second of two sites, by a stream of air coming off ‘the sheet’, we
arrived at my ‘Cliff Cam’ site, that had disappointed me so just two
days earlier. The equipment had malfunctioned and delivered one image,
one, instead of hundreds, the one being a view of a shallow fog hundreds
of meters below. What felt so redeeming was to replace the
malfunctioning equipment with a different system, one that had proven
itself at two successful sites. The redeployment here was a simple task,
and the view from this 300m (980 foot) cliff is just incredible.
Thousands of sea birds feed below at the brown plume of water coursing
from beneath the glacier. What they so eagerly hunt I know not, but
these birds, and their prey, share some symbiotic relationship with the
My day continued to be exciting, as we landed on the ship, just minutes
before the open boat began. A crowd awaited. I had time to change
clothes, then out into the crowd… I was engaged, talking in detail
with a number of people about how fascinating this unfolding climate
story is. I had no expectation that studying Greenland would be this
interesting and apparently significant on the global scale. I have
reason to believe this ice sheet is contributing significantly to the
observed 2.8mm (.11 inch) per year global mean sea level rise. More than
100 million people live within 1 m of sea level and so are threatened by
One local said to me, ‘we know the climate is changing… we dont need
scientists to tell us this…we just look out the window and see the ice
and snow are not where they usually are…and the animals behave
differently’, apparently referring to how the seal or bird hunting
season has changed.
The day ended meeting old friends, friends from 10 years earlier,
invited back to their house, some wine to drink, a guitar to play, and a
view on the walk to a hopping bar of the sun setting over icebergs.