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

glacier.

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

expected rise.

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.

– Jason

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