Letter from Greenland — From the April 2015 issue

Rotten Ice

Traveling by dogsled in the melting Arctic

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I first went to Greenland in 1993 to get above tree line. I’d been hit by lightning and was back on my feet after a long two-year recovery. Feeling claustrophobic, I needed to see horizon lines, and off I went with no real idea of where I was going. A chance meeting with a couple from west Greenland drew me north for a summer and part of the next dark winter. When I returned the following spring, the ice had failed to come in. I had planned to travel up the west coast by dogsled on the route that Knud Rasmussen took during his 1916–18 expedition. I didn’t know then that such a trip was no longer possible, that the ice on which Arctic people and animals had relied for thousands of years would soon be nearly gone.

Sled dogs on a small island off the west coast of Greenland, near the village of Aasiaat © Kari Medig

Sled dogs on a small island off the west coast of Greenland, near the village of Aasiaat © Kari Medig

In the following years I went much farther up the coast, to the two oldest northernmost villages in the world: Qaanaaq and Siorapaluk. From there I traveled with an extended family of Inuit subsistence hunters who represent an ice-evolved culture that stretches across the Polar North. Here, snowmobiles are banned for hunting purposes; against all odds, traditional practices are still carried on: hunting seals and walrus from dogsleds in winter, spring, and fall; catching narwhals from kayaks in summer; making and wearing polar-bear pants, fox anoraks, sealskin mittens and boots. In Qaanaaq’s large communal workshop, twenty-first-century tools are used to make Ice Age equipment: harpoons, dogsleds, kayaks. The ways in which these Greenlanders get their food are not much different than they were a thousand years ago, but in recent years Arctic scientists have labeled Greenland’s seasonal sea ice “a rotten ice regime.” Instead of nine months of good ice, there are only two or three. Where the ice in spring was once routinely six to ten feet thick, in 2004 the thickness was only seven inches even when the temperature was –30 degrees Fahrenheit. “It is breaking up from beneath,” one hunter explained, “because of the wind and stormy waters. We never had that before. It was always clear skies, cold weather, calm seas. We see the ice not wanting to come back. If the ice goes it will be a disaster. Without ice we are nothing.”

Icebergs originate from glaciers; ice sheets are distinct from sea ice, but they, too, are affected by the global furnace: 2014 was the hottest year on earth since record-keeping began, in 1880. Greenland’s ice sheet is now shedding ice five times faster than it did in the 1990s, causing ice to flow down canyons and cliffs at alarming speeds. In 2010, the Petermann Glacier, in Greenland’s far north, calved a 100-square-mile “ice island,” and in 2012, the glacier lost a chunk twice the size of Manhattan. Straits and bays between northwest Greenland and Ellesmere Island, part of Canada’s Nunavut territory, are often clogged with rotting, or unstable, ice. In the summer of 2012, almost the whole surface of Greenland’s ice sheet turned to slush.

What happens at the top of the world affects all of us. The Arctic is the earth’s natural air conditioner. Ice and snow radiate 80 percent of the sun’s heat back into space, keeping the middle latitudes temperate. Dark, open oceans and bare land are heat sinks; open water eats ice. Deep regions of the Pacific Ocean have heated fifteen times faster over the past sixty years than during warming periods in the preceding ten thousand, and the effect on both glaciers and sea ice is obvious: as warm seawater pushes far north, seasonal sea ice disintegrates, causing the floating tongues of outlet glaciers to wear thin and snap off.

Map by Mike Reagan

Map by Mike Reagan

By 2004 the sea ice in north Greenland was too precarious for us to travel any distance north, south, or west from Qaanaaq. Sea ice is a Greenlander’s highway and the platform on which marine mammals — including walrus, ring seals, bearded seals, and polar bears — Arctic foxes, and seabirds travel, rest, breed, and hunt. “Those times we went out to Kiatak and Herbert islands, up Politiken’s Glacier, or way north to Etah and Humboldt Glacier,” the Inuit hunters said, “we cannot go there anymore.” In 2012, the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice shrank to a record minimum. Last year, the rate of ice loss in July averaged 40,000 square miles per day.

The Greenland ice sheet is 1,500 miles long, 680 miles wide, and covers most of the island. The sheet contains roughly 8 percent of the world’s freshwater. GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment), a satellite launched in 2002, is one of the tools used by scientists to understand the accelerated melting of the ice sheet. GRACE monitors monthly changes in the ice sheet’s total mass, and has revealed a drastic decrease. Scientists who study the Arctic’s sensitivity to weather and climate now question its stability. “Global warming has fundamentally altered the background conditions that give rise to all weather,” Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Colorado, says. Alun Hubbard, a Welsh glaciologist, reports: “The melt is going off the scale! The rate of retreat is unprecedented.” To move “glacially” no longer implies slowness, and the “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” on people and nature that the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) warned us about have already come to fruition in Greenland.

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’s latest book, Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami, won the PEN USA Award in creative non-fiction. She is the recipient of a 2015 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Fellowship for work on a multimedia theater production about climate change.

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