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Story Publication logo May 22, 2014

Greenland's Ice Threatened from Above and Below


Image by Jonathan Vigliotti. Greenland, 2013.

Polar bears in Greenland struggle to find food as climate change chips away at Arctic ice...

Media file: screen_shot_2014-05-15_at_5.17.07_pm.png
Screenshot from NBC footage. Jonathan Vigliotti. Greenland, 2014.

"We got it."


"Bring it in."

What's being pulled from the arctic water, 500 miles south of Ittoqqortoormiit in Greenland's Sermilik Fjord, could predict how much more of Greenland's ice will melt.

"Gentle," a small research team chirps with as much excitement as anxiety as they ease what resembles a time capsule onto the deck of a fire-truck red icebreaker.

The high-tech instrument has been recording water temperature and salinity every hour of every day for a year. "So that we can estimate how much melting is happening, but also if these conditions change," explains Dr. Fiamma Straneo, an oceanographer with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She's the lead researcher on this arctic mission.

Fjords are like rivers, connecting the ocean to glaciers. Early data collected by Straneo's team shows a temperature of 40 degrees. Enough to rapidly melt glaciers. "We really want to know how much warm water is flowing in. What things drive it," Straneo tells me as she looks up the fjord at a cluster of icebergs. They will eventually be deposited in the ocean. "It appears climate change has shifted ocean currents sending subtropical water up to this environment. That warm water makes its way to the base of the glacier," she continued.

The threat has become two-fold. Warm air attacks glaciers from above. Warm water attacks from below. In the past decade the Greenland ice sheet's rate of melting has doubled. That's faster than ever recorded. Scientists say if all of Greenland's ice were to melt, oceans would rise by 20 feet, threatening coastal communities world wide. Straneo's research could predict how much the ocean will rise in the next century.

"Big berg on the left," shouted engineer Will Ostrom.

I joined the other scientists who rushed to the ship's stern, cameras in hand, to marvel at the palatial chunks of ice. Under a bright afternoon sun, the icebergs acted like a disco ball, reflecting fragments of light. The twisted shape of the ice in front of us resembled frozen fire.

"They're as big as some New York City high rises," said Ostrom, who is in charge of extracting the thermometers. He needs to retrieve two more before dusk. "It's tricky. There are more icebergs in the fjord this year. The instruments run the risk of getting stuck underneath them," he explained. Straneo's team will be in the fjord for a week retrieving old devices and depositing new ones that will be retrieved next year. While the rate of melting is still unclear, scientists say continued melting is inevitable. The real question is whether society can adjust fast enough.

Back in Ittoqqortoormiit, the familiar sounds of dawn ring villagers awake. Bells of a small church. Seagulls greeting hunters by the docks. And the engine of an ATV.

Erling Madsen begins another morning patrolling for polar bear. "We're a simple town. We're not used to much change, but we're keeping up best we can," he said.


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Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change

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