The icecap covers 82% of the country contains 20% of the world's fresh water frozen in a giant ice cube. If it were to melt, the sea level would rise 7m and flood many of the world's largest cities. This 20% number is interesting. During my travels, I have learned that another 20% of the world's fresh water is held in Lake Baikal in Siberia - although I am not sure it can be classed as 'fresh water' given the vast quantities of toxic pollutants that have been dumped into the lake since Stalin's industrialisation push. Another 20% is contained in the Amazon. These three places are some of the least populated parts of the world, so the rapidly rising 6.5bn world population is scrambling over just a fraction of the available resource.
My notes are more anecdotal rather than any form of scientific study, but speaking to many local Inuits and Danish expats, it is clear that the country has seen enormous change and tragedy over the past very few years.
In Kangerlussuaq, a river flows into the fjord. This time of year is small and frozen. A bridge connects the two sides of the town allowing people to get to work, school, to the shop and home. During the summer of 2012, the flow of melt water reached its normal peak of 1.5 million litres per second. But the melting of the icecap this year was greater then ever and a giant lake on the icecap burst through the ice and emptied itself in the river. The flow of water rose to over 3.5 million litres per second and swept up giant lumps of ice, silt and rocks sending them crashing down the river. The bridge in the town was submerged for the first time in its 60 year history and was smashed up. The massive steel supports were sent two kilometres downstream into the valley. The difficult processor rebuilding the bridge is underway, but the event was devastating for this tiny community of 500 inhabitants.
The ice fjord at Ilulissat
One of the wonders of the world, the ice fjord is a place of great beauty. Designated in recent years as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the place has attracted much attention from the world's media and climate change scientists. The Kangia glacier is calving at a rate of almost 59 meters a day. This is not the result of climate change but rather the speed at which the ice is flowing into this opening, releasing the huge pressures that exit within the ice cap. At the edge of the icecap, the ice is up to 1000m deep under the sea and rises another 200m above sea level. The fjord is packed with icebergs and crushed glacier ice.
Standing at the edge of the glacier, our helicopter pilot, Malik, pointed to the other side of the valley some 3km down the fjord towards the open sea. He explained that 4 years ago they used to land there when it was the edge of the glacier. The Kangia glacier is retreating fast, a phenomena affecting most of Greenland's glaciers.
We had expected to see the massive icebergs that had broken away from the icecap. There was one towering block of ice, some 500m in diameter lying beneath the glacier, locked in by the pack ice at the start of its journey to the sea. Malik explained that this was just a medium sized iceberg and that the really big icebergs were now very uncommon. Just 5 years ago, the fjord would be full of ice giant, but today there are hardly any.
The Disko Bay pack ice and the dog tradition
Lying 80km west of Ilulissat lies Disko Island. It is home to some 1,000 people in the mall settlement of Qeqertarsuaq (the 'big island'). During the winter months, the Inuits would travel by dogsled across the sea ice to visit the island or the mainland and trade. They would also hunt for seals and walruses. Every winter the sea would freeze up with a thick layer of ice. But for the past 15 years, the sea has not frozen up once and dog sledging has been restricted to land based trips.
Today, dogs remain an important part of Inuit life. Kept outside all year, they are hardy creatures that remain close to their wolf cousins. But with the lack of sea ice, their role has diminished. Some packs will doubtless be kept to entertain the growing number of tourists that visit, but many Greenlanders predict the demise of this tradition over the next 20 years.
Climate change silo scientists
Too few scientists are collaborating and sharing data. The Greenlandic people are increasingly conscious of the importance of their island to the stability of the global environment. They also see the ice melt faster each year with disastrous consequences to their lifestyle and culture.
In various places on the edge of the ice, I spotted tripods holding camera's in boxes capturing images and data about the retreating ice. In some places, half a dozen cameras were clustered together. A local official explained that despite the large number of teams working around the world studying the melting ice, they are not pooling their efforts and knowledge. This may be due to the way academic research is funded where grants are awarded for specific tasks or experiments.
Strange and wonderful world that we live in...