The End of the World Exploring Greenland, the blankest spot on the map--and not a moment too soon
by Edward Readicker-Henderson
DREAMING GREENLAND started my traveling life. Every day in fourth grade, I'd finish my assignments early, then go stare at the wall map, tracing the path of my imagination. In that Mercator distortion, Greenland loomed over the rest of the world, tumbling down the North Atlantic like the Blob eating the diner right before Steve McQueen saved the day.
Over the years, I've stood on maybe 50 glaciers, spent every minute possible in the Arctic, yet I've never been where everything I could see was frozen.
But here on Greenland's ice cap, the ice rolls like a snapshot of rapids, a moment of turbulence caught in a thousand shades of blue. Slipping backward on an uphill, trying to remember skiing reflexes on the down side of a frozen wave, I move past two abandoned snowmobiles, cross a narrow melt stream, and head into the white.
Thirty-five years I've waited for this. I almost waited too long, because the locus of my childhood dreams is melting. The warming that elsewhere is a slow tick of the clock is a pounding heartbeat here, speeding up day by day.
EVERYBODY IMAGINES GREENLAND, says William T. Vollmann in The Ice-Shirt, his retelling of the Norse sagas. But I had never imagined walking off the airplane in Kangerlussuaq, an old U.S. air base that's now a small town with the island's best runway, behind a girl talking on a cell phone, teetering down the stairs on spike heels and wearing a backless T-shirt, her blue bra a horizon line across her back.
Think of this largest island on Earth as ultima Thule, the place Pliny the Elder named "the most remote of all lands recorded," and which inspired writers and dreamers for centuries. They knew it was there, but not quite where it was or what it might be like. In Thule, said the Greek explorer Pytheas, "there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jellyfish." Even with time and the shrinking world of exploration, it remained romantic and hazy. For Longfellow, ultima Thule was the place where "in thy harbors for a while / we lower our sails; a while we rest."
The white spot on that map I stared at all through fourth grade was big enough to hold any dream.
The white spot of Greenland is, in fact, an ice cap roughly the size of Iran and up to two miles thick. A perimeter ring of mountains separates the ice from the thin strip of coastal land where most of Greenland's 56,000 residents live; glaciers drool toward the ocean like the tongues of tired dogs. Intervillage transport is by boat, sledge, and a fleet of modern planes that are nonetheless frequently grounded by weather.
I'm from southeast Alaska and used to measuring the world by how long it takes to get somewhere in a boat, so I've chosen to see what I can from the water, sailing eight days up the west coast from Kangerlussuaq to the north edge of Disko Bay, and then back south. Except for a few hours on the first and last day, the entire trip will be above the Arctic Circle.
But from where I stand at Kangerlussuaq's tiny harbor--a skiff returning from a hunting trip with reindeer hooves sticking above the gunwales, the Norwegian Coastal Voyages ship I'm about to board floating slow circles around its anchor in the fjord--I can't see any ice at all. The air is humid and thick, the land perfectly brown. Close up, the tundra is composed of bitter crowberries, white lichen, and saxifrage, punctuated by purple Lapland rosebay. Mountains rise behind a shop with a huge sign that reads "Musk Ox Rent and Sale."
The locked doors mean I'm never going to find out how much it costs to rent a musk ox.
WE SAIL PAST THE ARCTIC CIRCLE sometime in the middle of the night, in full sunshine. The Vikings threw images of their household gods off longboats along this western coast, building settlements, the sagas say, where the small wooden statues drifted ashore. This also used to be the whalers' highway, back when oil lamps held winter at bay in London. Disko Island--Qeqertarsuaq in Greenlandic, the world's largest island's largest island--was the jumping-off point for the search for the Northwest Passage. It is huge and sere, with dark mountains as jagged and oddly shaped as the icebergs jamming the harbor of Ilulissat, Greenland's third-largest town, midway up Disko Bay. The glacier here, Jakobshavn, has retreated at least nine miles since the 1920s; the past two years alone have brought more melt than the previous ten. According to a caption on the best map I could find (although it's full of blank spots, and few of the town names match what places are commonly called, which makes me think cartographers are still imagining ultima Thule), the nearby Sermeq Kujalleq Glacier is moving at a rate of almost four feet an hour, calving enough ice each summer day to supply New York City with freshwater for two years.
Elke Meissner has lived in Ilulissat for three decades. "The fishermen are glad," she says, "because they can fish year-round. But farther north, it's a problem for the hunters and for the polar bears. The sea ice is getting thinner."
Everywhere I look in this blue and white glare are broken bergs, floes, bergy bits, grinders, and growlers. The Arctic explorers had endless names for ice. What else was there to do over winter, when it was too dark to remember the faces of home? But this isn't new ice I'm looking at; it's centuries old, snapped from the glacier face. No sastrugi or hummocky floes, no pancake, brash, drift, or pack ice, not even the marvelously evocative fast ice that in normal conditions forms each winter. In fact, few of these names are needed anymore. "The bay hasn't frozen over in the last 10 or 12 years," Meissner says.
THE CRESCENT-MOON-SHAPED DISKO BAY will be the final destination of Greenland's ice cap, the Northern Hemisphere's big-gest chunk of ice. "Greenland slants," points out Ulrich Dornsiepen, a geologist. "This is the low point, and this is where it will all go when it melts."
Around the time of the Civil War, the average global temperature was 56 degrees Fahrenheit. Today it's 57.8. Variations in Earth's temperature are governed by three main factors: the shape of the planet's orbit, the angle at which the planet faces the sun, and the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. The first two factors vary through natural cycles, but since the Industrial Revolution, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and global temperatures have spiked in close correlation. Since the 19th century, the amount of carbon in the air has increased--largely from burning forests and fossil fuels--from 274 parts per million to 380 ppm, which has thickened the atmosphere and trapped more heat. The greenhouse effect in a nutshell.
Recent studies show that the Greenlandic ice cap is melting not only on top but underneath as well, hurrying glaciers to the sea. Last year alone, Greenland lost as much as 52 cubic miles of ice, and the speed of the melt is increasing, in part because so much has already melted. Ice is an extremely efficient reflector, bouncing solar heat back into the atmosphere. The loss of ice exposes more and more rock, which holds more heat, which melts yet more ice. Should the ice cap melt completely, the world's oceans will rise six to seven meters. "You've seen the disaster in New Orleans?" asks Dornsiepen. "The same thing can happen to all big coastal cities."
Before Greenland melts entirely, however, an even bigger problem could arise. All that freshwater means a less-salty--and therefore lighter and warmer--ocean. Changing the temperature and salinity of the North Atlantic could alter the Gulf Stream, which functions as a giant conveyor belt: Cold heavy water from around Greenland sinks and cycles south, pushing water from the tropics north to warm Europe. With each drop of lightweight ice melt pouring off Greenland, that belt frays a little more. The last time it was disrupted, much of Europe was buried under glaciers a mile thick.