The title really describes the essence of Greenland: Ice. We know it was a big mistake to call Greenland green. Even Iceland is greener than Greenland. If you like green you go to Ireland. But if you like white, this is your destination. 82% percent of the vast landmass of Greenland is permanently covered by a thick icesheet. Glaciologists don’t refer to this ice as a glacier, but rather call it an icesheet. Officially this refers to an ice covered area larger than 50,000 km2. There are only two icesheets on the planet: one in Antarctica and one here in Greenland.
After visiting Ilulissat it seems impossible to be more in awe by this amazing country. That is true, until you make the effort to spend the night on the inland ice. This is the most alien place you can visit without leaving the planet. Although this is my third visit to the inland ice (see report of a previous visit in this blog post), the comparison of walking on the surface of the Moon never fades. After all, it is a long trip to get here, requiring special vehicles. You dress in spacesuit-like special expedition clothes, including balaclavas and thick gloves, and you wear crampons under your high mountain boots. Anyway, I am a bit of a spacegeek, so perhaps other people have different sensations. Everyone here has the picture perfect Arctic expedition feeling though.
Please join me on a virtual expedition to the Greenland ice:
The trip to the inland icesheet starts in Kangerlussuaq, a short flight away from Ilulissat. This little town is the main hub for flights to Greenland and is located just a few kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. This is one of the few places in Greenland where you can easily access the inland icesheet. In most other places the edge of the ice consists of dangerous glaciers with deep crevasses.
A 4-wheel drive truck covers the 40 kilometers of the longest road in Greenland in about two hours. The road ends at Point 660, aptly named after the altitude of 660 meters above sea level. This high glacial moraine is where land changes to ice. We have to proceed on foot.
From Point 660 we climb down the moraine onto the ice. From here the ice stretches over 1,000 kilometers east, where it meets the Arctic Ocean. If we turn left we have over 2,500 kilometers of ice ahead of us, where the north coast meets the sea ice of the North Pole region. There is no human presence between us and the Pole now.
We carry our camping equipment in expedition pulka sleds. The ice is very hilly in this area, so pulling the sled means careful maneuvring to avoid toppling or being run over by the sled. It is hard work, but it keeps you warm.
Along the way we cross crevasses and water holes, like this one. This is a small moulin – or glacier mill – that leads melt water down the glacier to the bedrock bottom underneath. At this point the ice is ‘only’ a few hundred meters thick. In the middle the icesheet is over 3,000 meters deep.
Small moulins rapidly evolve into big ones. These man-eating holes can be up to 10 meters wide and are hundreds of meters deep. Looking down these holes is awesome, but extremely dangerous at the same time. This is alien territory!
After a few hours we set up camp, at a few kilometers from the edge of the icesheet. The ice here is still grey from silt and volcanic sand that is blown over the ice by the wind.
We have dinner in the relative luxury of the large expedition dome tent and a supply of fresh water and canned food, dropped here for the summer season by helicopter. Our Inuit guide tells us stories about other expeditions, including the recent visit of our (Dutch) King to this very same tent. Our King is an ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund, that took him here.
Looking from a distance it becomes clear how remote this place is. There is only a handful of people on this massive sheet of ice at this time in the afternoon. During the day temperatures are just below freezing. After sunset it cools down considerably, with night temperatures well below -10C. This is summer on the ice.
It is still twilight when the Moon rises over the horizon. Here I am posing with a few of my crewmates on an ice ridge above our lonely expedition camp.
The crisp clear sky makes for great photography. Weather is usually very stable and clear in this area, with very little precipitation. No light pollution too, so perfect for astrophotography.
Around midnight, although it never became pitch dark, we see a few stripes of faint Aurora Borealis. Not a given at this latitude in summer, so we are very lucky to see it.
With some light inside the tent the contrast is even more striking. Unfortunately the aerial display only lasts for a few minutes this night.
The next morning we pack up our little camp and head back to the landside. There is a lot of water on the edge of land and ice. Our guide tells us that the glacier shows a net melt of about 10 meters per year in this area. Ten years ago the glacier was as high as the moraine in the background. Now it keeps sinking every year, a phenomenon they had not seen until roughly the year 2000.
Our next stop is a glacier wall near Point 660. This is Russell’s Glacier, a fast-moving glacier tongue that meets a melt water river here. In summer it moves several meters per day into the river, where it breaks into pieces that drop in the water. A very spectacular site, considered sacred by the Inuit.
The glacier wall is up to 50 meters high. Just see the three people in the corner of the picture for scale.
Although these are two kids, you can see the size that Mother Nature has at this point.
In summer you are almost guaranteed to see large parts of the glacier wall breaking off and crushing into the rocks and river below. With a loud gunshot-like crack the wall suddenly collapses and thunders down. Nature at its loudest!
After this wonderful visit to the inland icesheet it is only an hour’s drive back to the airport, where our flight home awaits. Greenland is truly the land of miracles that very few get to experience. There for you to explore.