The signs were subtle at first. The harbor, which used to reliably freeze solid, stayed ice-free one winter, and then the next. The coastal sea-ice routes, used by trucks to carry supplies to remote villages, began to melt. The nearby glacier quickened its retreat up the fjord. The tundra flowers bloomed early. And then, in a signal as unequivocal as the return of the geese in spring, came the ultimate evidence that global warming was serious business: incoming flocks of international journalists and politicians. "Last week we had the Danish prime minister and the president of the European Commission," Piitannguaq Pedersen, booking agent for the Hotel Arctic in Ilulissat, told me when I visited in June. "We’ve also had the BBC and the Washington Post."
When it comes to climate change, Greenland is the front line. Climate scientists confirm what the locals have been saying for a decade: Greenland’s weather is getting warmer (by nearly 4 degrees in the last 15 years), and it’s wreaking monumental changes on the island’s icy environment. And that, perversely, has translated into a kind of celebrity. Movies like An Inconvenient Truth and books such as Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe have given Greenland a star turn as the leading image of potential ecological disaster.
Curiously, just as the world’s attention is fixed on Greenland and its receding ice cap, tourism here is taking off, rising by a full 10 percent in the past two years. In May, Air Greenland debuted its first-ever direct service from the United States, a twice-weekly, four-hour flight between Baltimore and the air hub of Kangerlussuaq, on the island’s west coast. The flight serves an ever growing number of adventure travelers in search of untouched locations to explore. And then there are the rubberneckers, driven by a morbid fascination with Greenland’s dangerous, melting beauty. I fell squarely into both camps.
Within 24 hours of landing at Kangerlussuaq—a tiny settlement alongside a huge, decommissioned American airbase—I was bumping along the dirt road that leads to the edge of the ice sheet. The landscape was stark and comfortless, a series of bare, glacier-rounded hills softened by patches of tundra and a few musk oxen, shaggy goatlike beasts swathed in curtains of long, silky brown hair.
The place seemed so indifferent to human existence that it felt almost extraterrestrial. Yet the last 4,000 years have brought at least eight waves of migration. The Norse, under Erik the Red, settled in 982 and scratched out a living for more than four centuries before vanishing. The Inuit, who last migrated from present-day Canada at about the same time, survived, and today their descendants account for 85 percent of the population. Many make their living as fishermen, living in small settlements scattered along the southwestern coast, in the narrow habitable band squeezed between the ocean and the vast ice cap.
Four-fifths of the world’s largest island is covered by this ice, which is up to two miles thick and the size of Western Europe. At first glance, however, it’s rather unimpressive. After disembarking some 15 miles from Kangerlussuaq, I clambered over a tumbled gravel landscape and caught a glimpse of the fabled ice sheet: a field of dirty snow that stretched to a nearby ridge. I climbed higher, and at the top of an ice hillock I found the view I was looking for: an unearthly, rolling whiteness that stretched on and on and on—350 miles, to the island’s eastern edge. The only sound was the wind and the tinkling of rivulets of meltwater, seeping out of cracks in the ice and gathering themselves into a small stream.