Greenland Melting: The End of the End of the World
A Report From the Ground Zero of Global Warming
Posted Jul 10, 2008 11:51 AM
For a few minutes, the only sound is the shovels cutting into the pit.
There are four grad students digging. They work from inside the hole,
which is waist-deep but too stretched about 15 feet to make you think
of a grave. It looks more like an archaeological excavation.
Liam Colgan, one of the grad students, stops and leans on his shovel and
says, "It's retardedly hot right now."
Another grad student, Dan McGrath, who is from White Plains, New York,
glances over his shoulder and says, "I feel like I'm at Jones Beach."
Colgan says, "This is enjoyably warm."
It's actually only a few degrees above freezing. But given the fact that
it is early May and we are standing in the middle of the Greenland ice
sheet, at a point approximately 3.5 latitudinal degrees 155 miles
north of the Arctic Circle, then yes, it's hot: enjoyably, retardedly,
unnaturally, ill-bodingly, possibly panic-inducingly so. Last summer's
melt season in Greenland was the most severe on record, and it didn't get
this warm until June.
We've all shed our hats and gloves and stripped off several layers of
North Face and fleece. I've pushed up the sleeves of the two thermal
undershirts I'm wearing, but I still feel sweaty, and I'm not even
digging. All afternoon, the sun has been simultaneously beating down on
our heads and reflecting back into our faces. The glare off the endless
white of the glacier makes mirrored goggles and copious amounts of
sunblock a necessity.
Colgan, the joker of the group, has smeared his face with zinc, leaving
thick white streaks that make him look like an improperly rinsed clown. A
first-year Ph.D. candidate from Toronto, he cheerily complains, "It's
funny how you study so hard to be a glaciologist and then you come here
and end up doing the work of a rural Chinese laborer. Yesterday I was
hauling buckets of snow over a hill."
Konrad Steffen, a professor of geography at the University of Colorado,
stands at the edge of the pit, smoking a cigarette, his legs spread and
planted like two-thirds of a tripod. Steffen has traveled to Greenland
every spring since 1990. A large portion of his fieldwork involves
maintaining the 22 weather towers he's set up at various points on the ice
sheet. The towers, which look like antennae jutting out of the snow,
continuously record climate data.
Steffen was born in Zurich, and he speaks in a thick Swiss-German accent.
He's tall and gangly, with skin that's been leathered by years of polar
curing and the sort of wild beard favored by homeless men, sea captains
and extras on Deadwood. With his long, thin face, the public figure
Steffen most brings to mind is John Kerry, if Kerry were an 18th-century
Growing up near the Alps, Steffen always loved skiing and mountaineering.
He originally came to Greenland to measure, in the most basic sense, ways
in which the climate interacts with ice. The research was always
interesting (to him, at least), but not the sort that carried major
geopolitical, future-of-humanity implications. "I did not come to
Greenland because I thought there was warming or a fast melt," he says.
But since the mid-Nineties, Steffen has recorded a steady, increasingly
distressing upswing in temperature. "Before last year, 2005 was the
biggest melt year," Steffen says. "And before that, 2002 was the biggest
in the past 30 years. So we break a record every two or three years now."
Nodding at the pit, he says, "Towers fall over from the melt. Usually we
could know how deep to dig so they would stand, but that has all changed."
The students angle their shovels under the long central shaft and try to
keep from damaging the assorted devices solar panels, ball-shaped
radiometers, a spinning propeller to measure wind velocity, a snow sensor
that resembles a steel thermos attached to the protruding metal arms.
More than archaeologists now, the students seem like characters in a
science-fiction movie who have just stumbled across something disturbing:
an artifact from some advanced civilization that is not their own, one
that didn't make it.
Historically, Greenland has never been a terrific draw for outsiders. The
vast central region of the country is uninhabitable ice. In winter, it can
be dark for months on end. Even today, there are no roads connecting the
major population centers, so flying remains the most practical way to get
around the country. Ilulissat, the gorgeous coastal town that's become
Greenland's primary tourist destination, has more sled dogs than humans.
Despite all of this, in the past few years Greenland has attracted more
visitors and international attention than ever thanks almost solely to
global warming. Because the effects of warming can be seen most intensely
in the Arctic, where temperatures have been rising twice as fast as in the
rest of the world, Greenland has become synonymous with climate change.
This, naturally, has drawn an increasing number of researchers attempting
to study and (hopefully) slow or halt the disintegration of the ice sheet,
along with reporters looking for dramatic ways to illustrate complicated,
science-heavy stories, politicians on photogenic fact-finding missions
(Nancy Pelosi and a congressional delegation visited Steffen's camp in
spring '07) and ecotourists hoping to catch one last glimpse of an
endangered species (in this case, the metaphorical species being an entire
country on the verge of melting).
Humans being humans, the change has also drawn people looking to make a
buck in particular, oil and mineral prospectors. No one is exactly sure
what lies beneath the 81 percent of Greenland that is covered in ice. But
the melt is making it exponentially easier to find out. In 2004, when the
U.K. mining company Crew Gold Corp. opened the Nalunaq gold mine, it was
Greenland's first new mine in more than 30 years; by last year, 78
mineral-exploration licenses had been granted to about 30 companies.
According to the London newspaper The Independent, the entire flying
capacity of Air Greenland was booked by prospectors for much of last
summer. Aside from oil and gold, they've come looking for diamonds, zinc,
lead, silver, zirconium and other squares on the periodic table (niobium,
molybdenum) you've never heard of. "The last five years," an Air Greenland
pilot tells me, "it's become a modern Klondike."
It's rare that a disaster happens with enough advance warning to allow for
observation in real time. We think of natural disasters as sudden, brutal
things; entering a "disaster zone" usually implies after-the-fact, a
surveying of the wreckage. It's not often you can walk around inside a
disaster as it's occurring, talk to the future survivors (and casualties,
and profiteers), make sure the light is perfect for capturing the
collapse. Greenland, as ground zero of the climate crisis, is one of those
disasters, and that is why so many divergent interests are converging here
right now. Who doesn't want to see the future?
Although it is the largest island in the world, roughly the size of all 26
states east of the Mississippi, Greenland has a minuscule population
only about 56,000 people. Historically, visitors have made the difficult
trek for a number of reasons. The present-day Inuit population, originally
hunters from Central Asia, most likely arrived about 5,000 years ago.
Vikings showed up around 985, led by Erik the Red, who supposedly
christened the country "the Green Land" in order to trick other Nordic
settlers into joining him. (This may be the first recorded instance of a
real-estate naming scam.) In the 17th century, European whalers began
prowling the coast, ultimately decimating the bowhead-whale and walrus
populations. The Danish colonized Greenland in the 18th century and
imposed restrictive trade agreements; Greenland remains part of the United
Kingdom of Denmark, though the country moved to a semiautonomous home-rule
agreement in 1979. The United States set up several military bases in
Greenland during the World War II era, including the still-operational
Thule Air Base. During the Cold War, an American B-52 bomber flying over
Thule crashed off the coast; documents made public eight years ago
revealed that one of the hydrogen bombs the plane was carrying has never
been recovered. (The U.S. government has not acknowledged that this might
have something to do with the cleanup crew's high cancer rates.) And, of
course, explorers like Robert Peary came to test their mettle against the
harsh climate and win the race to the North Pole. In 1897, Peary also
brought six Inuits back to New York, where they were housed in the
basement of the Museum of Natural History. Four quickly died; a
seven-year-old boy named Minik survived, only to learn that the museum
buried an empty casket at his father's "funeral" and kept the body for its
collection. In 1909, when Peary finally claimed to have reached the Pole,
the San Francisco Examiner interviewed Minik, then 19. The headline was
"Why Arctic Explorer Peary's Neglected Eskimo Boy Wants to Shoot Him."
Today, Ilulissat is the third-largest town in Greenland, with a population
of about 4,500. As I fly into western Greenland on a tiny Dash 7 propeller
plane, the terrain below is gray-brown tundra, lightly streaked with snow,
a ratio that reverses as we approach Ilulissat. We pass frozen lakes of
various sizes. The edges have begun to melt, so the lakes look as if a
child has poorly attempted to trace their outline with a thick marker. It
is an incredibly clear afternoon, and the shadow of the airplane floats
over the blasted-looking terrain below like an evil black bird.
To counter the monotony of the landscape, Greenlanders paint their
buildings garish colors. Ilulissat, from the air, looks like a toy town on
a hill. The houses are barn red, sunflower yellow, Dodger blue.
Ilulissat overlooks Disko Bay, which is fed by the Jakobshavn Isbrf, the
fastest-moving glacier in the world. Greenland's central ice sheet is
always moving, resulting in "outlet glaciers" like Jakobshavn, which
disgorges massive icebergs through the fjord and into Disko Bay, where
they make their way to the ocean. (The iceberg that sank the Titanic
likely took this path.) The view of the bay from Ilulissat, which means
"the icebergs," is one of the most spectacular sights in the world. Some
of the icebergs are the size of islands; others look like gleaming pottery
shards. Though "fast-moving glacier" sounds like an oxymoron, the postcard
view of the bay you admire before closing your curtains at night (which
still looks like day, so you have to close your curtains very tight) will
be completely different from the postcard view greeting you in the
At the end of May, a group of diplomats came to Ilulissat to discuss the
spoils of global warming. The closed-door meetings involved
representatives from five Arctic coastal nations the United States,
Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway and centered on competing oil and gas
rights in the polar seabed. A recent dispute has centered on the Lomonosov
Ridge, an underwater mountain range that stretches from the coasts of
Siberia, Greenland and the Canadian Arctic across the North Pole. Russia,
Denmark and Canada all claim the ridge as a submerged extension of their
national landmasses, which would technically give them ownership of
whatever else lies hidden beneath. Last summer, the Russians, to the
profound irritation of the rest of the world, sent a submarine to plant a
titanium underwater flag on the ridge, which could contain 10 billion tons
of oil, along with gold, nickel and diamonds. By some estimates, the
Arctic holds a quarter of the world's untapped oil and gas reserves.
There is a profound irony, of course, in the fact that easier access to
new oil has been made possible thanks to global warming thanks, that is,
to the wanton burning of old oil. The choice of Ilulissat as host city for
the summit also feels like a dark joke. In 2004, UNESCO placed the
Jakobshavn Isbrf on its World Heritage List; in the past 10 years, the
speed of the glacier's movement has doubled, almost certainly because of
climate change. Jakobshavn currently loses 20 million tons of ice per day,
which is the amount of water used by New York City in an entire year.
The winters have also grown milder. In the past, Disko Bay would freeze
over entirely. (One Ilulissat local tells me taxis used to take shortcuts
over the ice.) But with the exception of this past winter, which was
unusually cold, the bay hasn't frozen in years. Inuits once drove their
sleds onto the ice to hunt seals, but now sled dogs are going hungry and
even being shot by their owners. Around Ilulissat, you see dogs
everywhere, mostly chained to rocks (two per rock, as they're mean and
will fight), looking filthy and matted. Tourists have to be warned to keep
Despite the increase in summer tourism, off-season Ilulissat still has the
slightly desperate, lawless feel of a frontier town. Walking around, I
notice a torn flier for a band called Peep Durple. A man with a
scope-mounted rifle slung over his back strolls past a bright-blue
public-housing complex. Across the street, two kids play on a steep
second-story roof, one of them brandishing a sled-dog whip. (I'm not sure
if the kid is supposed to be Indiana Jones or a guy mushing his sled
dogs.) On a distant hill, a lone man shovels snow in front of his house,
which, in Greenland, feels like a deeply existential act.
One night around 10:00, I duck into the hotel bar. It's still bright light
outside. The bar is a dive, and everyone inside is wildly drunk. There's a
menace in the air. Greenland has inordinately high alcoholism and suicide
rates. Later, someone tells me about a friend's 12-year-old who shot
himself through the mouth.
In the bar, they play Eighties MTV hits: Dire Straits, the Police, Tina
Turner. The fact that it's still daylight out makes the level of
drunkenness collectively attained by this room feel especially debauched,
almost deranged. Carlsberg beer bottles cover every surface of every
table. One woman is passed out in a booth, sitting straight up. Another,
quite a bit older, sidles over to the bar and asks me something in
Greenlandic. She eventually tries to hold my hand. I pretend to be
confused and slap her five, then immediately feel like a jerk, although
she's so hammered she doesn't even notice and wanders away.
The following evening, I have dinner at the much fancier Hotel Arctic,
recently renovated and currently adding a new conference center. A cluster
of luxury silver igloos available for rent lines the hill below the hotel.
In the upscale restaurant, they're playing Leonard Cohen's greatest hits,
and one of the appetizers is smoked whale carpaccio with a pesto garnish.
(Actually very delicious; tastes like beef.) A jazz trio is playing "The
Girl From Ipanema" on the deck. The guitarist, who is Greenlandic, tells
me, "When Denmark came here, we had very quick development. Greenlanders
were nature people, and they hardly knew what was happening. For a lot of
years, they were strangers in their own country."
Ilulissat is already experiencing some of the economic benefits of
disappearing ice. Local halibut fishermen have been pulling in record
catches, and tourism, now the town's main growth industry, has been
boosted dramatically by the ability of cruise ships to dock more easily in
Arctic waters. One afternoon, I take a boat ride around Disko Bay to check
out the icebergs up close.
Our fishing boat is piloted by a skinny Greenlander with a wispy catfish
mustache. Greenlandic pop music faintly emanates from a Panasonic car
stereo installed in the wheelhouse. The water is so clear and blue, birds
flying low seem to be racing their own reflections. Leaning out against
the railing, the passengers snap photographs of the icebergs as we noisily
motor past. The massive, arena-size icebergs look strangely dry, almost
like marzipan. The smaller chunks of glacier look like regular, wet ice.
The tiniest shards are scattered all over the surface of the water, like
confetti after a parade.
It's a strange feeling to be confronted with so much natural beauty and
yet at the same time know you have essentially traveled to the end of the
world which is how the ancient Greeks thought of the Far North:
"Hyperborea," a magical land free of disease and old age in order to
contemplate the end of the world. Or at least to contemplate the end of
Greenland. Which I guess technically would be the end of the end of the
Eventually, we stop at a settlement much tinier than Ilulissat, about an
hour up the coast. Our guide informs us the town's population is 48. He
says we have about an hour to explore, and then he disappears. It's
impossible not to feel like a bit of a prick when wandering around a
population-48 traditional fishing village as part of a packaged tourist
outing. Thankfully, it's lunchtime, and most people seem to be indoors.
Someone eventually drives by on a snowmobile, prompting one of the guys on
our tour, a German in his forties with a soul patch, to grin and say,
On the ride back, I realize the strangest thing about the boat ride is the
simple action of staring endlessly at the icebergs at these floating,
inert objects from a moving vehicle. It feels like being on safari, only
all of the animals are dead.
Swiss Camp, Konrad Steffen's research station, is a 27-minute helicopter
ride from Ilulissat. Once we fly over the mountains, the terrain quickly
gives way to ice and snow and nothing else. The change is stunning, as is
the utter isolation of Swiss Camp. Being on the ice sheet is like standing
on an empty beach that feeling-puny-on-the-edge-of-an-awesome-vastness
sort of feeling. Only in this case, you're standing in the middle of the
ocean, and it's frozen. Every direction is nothing but unobstructed
horizon, as far as vision allows: nothing but a faint line dividing snow
The camp itself comprises three large domed tents set on a wooden
platform. To enter the tents, you trudge to the top of a mound of snow and
descend through a wooden hatch. This entrance was added to the camp in
1993 under the assumption that when researchers arrived in the spring, the
tents would be buried in snow. But that hasn't happened for several years.
Steffen ended up in Greenland by chance. He'd been doing research in China
in the late Eighties and had been scheduled to begin a climate study in
Tibet. But at the last minute, the Chinese government demanded exorbitant
fees, so Steffen, still working out of a Swiss university, shifted his
focus to Greenland. The project was meant to last only two seasons. But in
1992, Swiss Camp was completely snowed in. By law, Steffen's staffers were
required to remove the station from the ice when they'd finished their
research, but excavating it was impossible. Steffen was getting ready to
leave the university, and the school offered to sell him Swiss Camp for
one dollar. "I called my new program manager," Steffen recalls, "and said,
'I have this great deal. . . .' "
Buying Swiss Camp has allowed Steffen to return to the same site each
year, a rare thing in fieldwork. "You never stay 10 or 15 years in one
place," Steffen says. "But we have been able to study the changes here for
this entire period, which is exceptional." Steffen has continuous
measurements from his weather stations since 1990. They record data every
15 seconds. The winter temperature over that time period has increased by
nearly eight degrees Fahrenheit.
When Swiss Camp was built, its latitude was considered the "equilibrium
line," the point at which the amount of snowfall every year equals the
amount of melt, so the total amount of snow on the ground remains
relatively constant. But the equilibrium line has been moving steadily
northward, and now melt far exceeds snowfall. This is why Steffen's
weather stations fell over, and why the entire platform upon which Swiss
Camp rests is threatening to topple.
Inside, each tent is about the size of a college dorm room. Only two of
the three tents are heated. Everyone spends most of the time in the
crowded kitchen tent, which has a small propane camping stove, a bread
machine, makeshift shelving units containing the season's food supplies
(mostly purchased by Steffen and his students during a single massive
shopping trip in Boulder, Colorado, and then shipped out in giant yellow
crates, some of which are still sitting out in the snow when I arrive) and
a long homemade plywood table surrounded by folding chairs.
Other pertinent facts: To make drinking water, it is necessary to melt
snow; the snow is stored in a barrel kept next to the stove and melted in
the sort of pot normally used to cook spaghetti. For this reason, it's
very important to keep the latrine areas well-segregated from the
snow-to-be-melted-for-drinking-water areas. There are two latrine areas:
the "pee pole," which is exactly what it sounds like, and the "shigloo,"
about which the less said, the better. (I'll just mention that the "igloo"
part of the shigloo is U-shaped, waist-high and otherwise open-air.) The
sleeping at Swiss Camp is done on cots in unheated, single-occupancy
camping tents, set up in three rows at the base of the hill. Upon entering
your tent, it's highly advisable to zip yourself into your sleeping bag as
quickly as possible, preferably without removing many layers of clothing.
(Definitely not your hat.) In the morning, your water bottle probably will
have frozen. When the wind buffets the tent, it feels like you're in a
ship battered by a storm. The side and back walls pulsate wildly, as if
people were standing outside trying to shake you out the front flap.
Swiss Camp is funded partly by NASA, thanks to Steffen's colleague Jay
Zwally. In the Nineties, Zwally began setting up GPS units around
Greenland to measure the movement of the ice. Scientists once assumed that
the ice sheet moved at a uniform speed throughout the year, but Zwally has
proved that, in fact, the ice sheet can move at a faster pace during the
summer. This is happening, he believes, because surface meltwater is
rapidly draining into and beneath the glacier, through enormous melt holes
called moulins. Once the meltwater reaches the bedrock below, it
lubricates the underside of the ice according to Zwally's calculations,
the ice sheet, buoyed by this water, rises six inches during the melt
and speeding the ice's journey to the ocean. This is called the Zwally
There are seven researchers at Swiss Camp this season. Alberto Behar, who
works for NASA, designed moulin-filming equipment (he's also helped
develop Mars rovers). Thomas Phillips, a Swiss glaciologist, says his
friends back home call him "the Prophet of Doom." Kevin Sampson, an
earnest, bearded Ph.D. student from Northern California, has spent three
field seasons here, which makes him the veteran grad student and might
explain why he's the one who came up with the idea to make Swiss Camp
margaritas with tequila, powdered Country Time lemonade and glacier ice.
Everyone calls Steffen "Koni." Some people pronounce it like the woman's
name ("Connie"), others like the island ("Coney"). Like other native
German speakers Arnold Schwarzenegger comes to mind Steffen, 56,
pronounces his words with such guttural, melodious zeal that every
sentence sounds like he's just taken a bite of an especially delicious
sandwich. Even when he's detailing some grim new data, the heartiness of
Steffen's delivery makes him sound vaguely delighted by the new challenge.
While explaining the equilibrium line, he says, "It's moved way up!" in
the tone he might use to tell me I'd just been awarded a MacArthur