Kangerlussuaq overlapped with a visit by Dr. Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, one of Denmark’s leading ice physicists. Like most visiting scientists, she stopped by Kangerlussuaq International Science Support (KISS), a logistics hub housed on the edge of the airstrip. In April, KISS will be particularly busy, thanks to the latest International Polar Year, the fourth since 1882. During each of these periods, teams of scientists from around the world pool their resources to study a wide variety of arctic and antarctic phenomena. This "year" (it runs until March 2009), one of their focuses is on the impact of climate change. "I think that all scientists agree that global warming is man-made," Dahl-Jensen says. "The uncertainties in the discussion come when we predict what happens in the future."
That’s where her research comes in. Dahl-Jensen is heading up a 14-nation project to extract some of the deepest, oldest ice from the bottom of the cap. "We want to drill an ice core that contains the unbroken record from the period 115,000 to 130,000 years ago," she says. "That’s a period when the average temperature over Greenland was nine degrees warmer than it is now." With our climate heating up, the core could indicate how much—and how quickly—the ice cap will melt in the decades ahead.
According to current estimates, if the ice sheet reacts today the way it did then, Greenland will lose one-third of its ice. That process appears to be already under way. Models show that within this century, global sea levels could rise anywhere from seven inches to two feet, and some scientists say they could go even higher. And that may be just the beginning. Recent measurements indicate that Greenland is losing 200 billion tons of ice per year, a rate that’s twice as fast as that of a decade ago. If the whole thing melts (a catastrophic scenario that could take anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand years, depending on whom you ask), scientists estimate that the worldwide sea level could rise 23 feet. So even if you don’t get to Greenland, sooner or later, Greenland may come to you.
From kangerlussuaq, I flew north, my face pressed against the airplane window as I watched the empty landscape roll past. The uninhabited valleys of tundra, dotted with unfished lakes and cut by undammed streams, seemed a rugged and primeval Eden. In the summer sun, the land appeared benign, but the weather here is changeable and often unimaginably harsh, plunging in the long dark of winter to sub-zero temperatures for months at a stretch.
We were already well into our descent when we skimmed over the Ilulissat Icefjord, a chaotic jumble of bergs and sea-ice rubble. This is where the ancient ice of the inland sheet flows out through a glacier and calves off into the ocean. Fifteen years ago, it moved at a rate of 3.5 miles per year, releasing enough fresh water to supply New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island combined. Today, it’s flowing twice as fast.
Just north of the ice fjord lies the town of Ilulissat ("icebergs," in Inuit), with a population that in Greenland makes it a megalopolis: 6,000, or a ninth of the island’s total population. For centuries, the town’s cold, fertile waters have spawned a rich harvest of halibut, seal, and whale. Now they draw travelers. Tour boats wind their way among the massive bergs that loom outside the harbor mouth, and carry passengers up to the Eqi glacier, whose calving creates mini-tsunamis with each falling chunk. Walk a mile south of town and you’ll find the cove of Sermermiut, near an Inuit settlement site hemmed in by an ever creeping palisade of icebergs.
In Ilulissat, where a tidy collection of brightly painted houses sits upon barren outcroppings of gray rock, civilization at its most cultured resides alongside wilderness at its most raw and brutal. In the Pisifik department store, you’ll find the latest clothes and electronics flown in from Denmark, while down the street a sinewy hunter hacks a seal carcass into pieces for sale. But the town’s true heart is the harbor, home to its lifeblood, the fishing fleet.