A geologist’s front-row seat to Greenland glacial melt

"Never in my career as a geologist have I seen moraines so fresh and stark — and sad."

By Karin Kirk, Yale Climate Connections - September 23, 2019
An iceberg floats near Kulusuk harbor in east Greenland in a 2009 file photo. (Bob Strong / Reuters file photo)

IN THE AREA OF KULUSUK, EAST GREENLAND — As we approached the glacier, mountain guide David Gladwin lost his footing in deep mud. “Go left!” he called with a laugh as his boot sank ankle-deep. Gladwin is an internationally certified mountain guide, and we were in the midst of terrain only vaguely mapped and rarely explored. We veered left, following his instructions. Gladwin pulled his foot out but managed only a few more steps before he sank again, this time deeper. His boots looked like they’d been dipped into liquid concrete.

A first-person perspective
“Left, left!” Gladwin yelled. “Hard left!” At the same moment, two teammates became similarly entrapped. “Aim for the rocks!” Gladwin urged. One mate was perched on a boulder the size of a microwave oven. The rock was slowly submerging itself into pale grey ooze. “My rock is sinking!” he called out. Busy negotiating his own path, Gladwin had no suggestions. The ground looked solid but was saturated with meltwater. “Just go quickly!” Gladwin offered. I took in the scene as my two teammates were now in a slurry up to their knees, each effort to get out only causing further trouble. It was only 15 feet to the glacier’s edge and I made a run for it, moving briskly and stepping on the biggest rocks I could find. I landed unscathed, safe on the thin lip of ice that was the toe of a massive glacier.

Prior to the trip I’d emailed a colleague: “If I were Greenland I’d try to kill every visitor.” It seemed a fair trade, as westerners are dealing a polluting death knell to this magnificent ice. But as we turned our attention to the river of ice in front of our dirty boots, I was hoping I hadn’t been prophetic.

The weather: ‘It’s not just been weird, it’s been crazy’

Three days earlier we’d been clutching our final cups of good coffee, wedging last-minute additions into overstuffed backpacks, and excitedly getting ready to depart for a six-day trek. I’d come to Greenland to confront the effects of climate change firsthand and to pay respects to the imperiled ice in the lowest-impact manner I could think of: by walking to it.

As a geologist, I was ready to read the signs of climate change on the landscape. But what surprised me was how the topic seemed to be part of every conversation. At the breakfast table, Matt Spenceley, the owner of the guiding company I’d be hiking with, summed up recent weather events: “It’s not just been weird, it’s been crazy.”

Spenceley and his wife Helen are mountain guides who have been exploring and living in Greenland for 20 years, working in close partnership with the local Greenlandic Inuit.

“We keep on saying that we’ve never seen that before,” recounted Spenceley, as he ticked down the list of worrisome changes. The loss of sea ice, alarming speed of glacial retreat, fierce storms, summertime heat waves, and oddball weather — all have outsized impacts in a place where the human experience is a mere afterthought on the margins of this mighty island of ice.

To the glacial plateau

Under a sunny August sky, we ascended the glacier in t-shirts. Meltwater poured past us, gracefully meandering streams on top of the ice. We passed a moulin — a drain hole in the ice — making an eerie, echoing gurgling sound of water trickling down a long, long pipe. Facing downhill, we watched meltwater streams flow all the way down the surface of the glacier, out onto the outwash plain, and onward to the glassy surface of the fjord, five miles away. A front-row seat to sea-level rise.

We paused to drink, dipping our water bottles into the meltwater. It was the coldest, freshest, most delicious water I’ve ever tasted. “Thanks, climate change,” I said, wiping my mouth on my sleeve.

It had taken two days of walking to reach the foot of this glacier, and now we’d be spending two more days walking its entire length, from its quicksand delta, up and over a glacial plateau 2,300 feet above our heads, and down the other side, where the glacier dives steeply towards an arm of the Sermiligaaq fjord. By Greenland standards this glacier is too small to even warrant a name.

That night we made camp near the high point of the glacier, in a gently sloped area at a crossroads of two glacial systems. At 5 a.m., I awoke for my one-hour shift of polar bear patrol, pacing the perimeter of camp and admiring the vast plains of ice stretching out in every direction. (As standard practice, we had guns, flares, and other defensive weapons at the ready, but ended up not having to use them.) The Arctic sun shone dimly behind fair weather clouds, hovering just above naked spires of tortured bedrock. It was utterly silent, save for the crunch of my boots on refrozen snow. For a moment, I was transported to the Pleistocene.

Crevasse avoidance

The next day, we continued our traverse of the glacier, heading downhill from the plateau. If the glacier had seemed reluctant to let us onto it, it may have been similarly unwilling to let us off.

As the glacier descended deeper into the valley, its surface went from smooth and snow-covered, to increasingly fractured into crevasses. We took precautions to prevent falling into these gaps in the ice and discussed methods to extricate ourselves if someone fell in. Not an enjoyable conversation.

“What are the chances that someone will fall in a crevasse?” I asked, trying to put the hazard in context.

“I’d be very surprised if, by the end of this trip, someone doesn’t fall in,” Gladwin explained matter-of-factly. (He ended up enjoying being surprised – no one fell in.)

We pressed onward, and I reasoned that while it may be likely that someone falls into a crevasse, maybe it doesn’t have to be me. I focused on each footfall, trying to stay away from unstable crevasse walls while leaping across the voids in the ice. “Don’t kill me, Greenland!” I thought to myself.

After a few hours of hiking a circuitous route around and over the maze of crevasses, we exited the glacier off to the side, amid another fast-flowing river of meltwater flowing across the ice. We breathed a sigh of relief from the safety of a boulder field.

Several more hours of difficult descending alongside the glacier brought us to its snout. A 2015 map showed this glacier extending all the way to the fjord, but now it’s shy of that mark, coming to rest on a bed of sand and gravel it had excavated from the mountains above. We made camp on the outwash plain, exhausted but exhilarated.

Maps made obsolete by glacial retreat

For the next two days we worked our way along the fjord, home to a series of massive tidewater glaciers. The towering calving face of the Kaarale Glacier loomed overhead about a half mile from our camp. Not long ago, the Kaarale filled this fjord three miles beyond its current location. In fact, all of these glaciers are retreating so fast the cartographers can’t keep the maps apace. A 1991 map shows our campsite buried by ice, and even the most recent map, published just four years ago, has already been rendered obsolete by the contracting ice.

This simple, troubling fact could be quickly field-checked. In front of every valley glacier stood a sharp semicircle of gravel — a recessional moraine — marking the recent outline of the ice. It was the geologic equivalent of crime scene spray paint around a murder victim; a ghostly footprint of something taken before its time.

Tucked in the side-valleys, what’s left of the ice was visibly sucking backwards uphill, like icy knuckles relaxing their grip on the bare rock. Waterfalls streamed off the ends of the stranded glaciers.

On the opposite side of the fjord, a sharp strandline of gravel and boulders indicated the former height of the Kaarale Glacier. It’s called a lateral moraine, but looked more like a colossal bathtub ring, offering a visceral sense of the previous thickness of the ice, 700 feet overhead. Never in my career as a geologist have I seen moraines so fresh and stark — and sad.

A powerful, vulnerable landscape

Sleep was elusive that night. The persistent Arctic twilight and thundering sounds of glacial calving didn’t help, but mostly it was my brain, working overtime to digest the scenes we’d walked past that day.

This terrain exudes power. The peaks overhead are fiercely toothed, constructed of three-billion-year-old metamorphic rock, unwilling to erode into softened topography. Braided rivers crisscross the valleys, milky with glacial silt, swiftly delivering out to sea what recently had been ice. But the glaciers are what captivated us. Their scale is impossible to describe. Even in the midst of catastrophic retreat, they are still too vast to comprehend. Not one road, bridge, building, or other form of human-built structure stands as a basis for comparison.

It’s hard to square the raw potency of this humbling geography with the unseen threat exerted by the warming atmosphere and oceans that are nipping away at the landscape from above and below, stealing away its icy coat. Greenland is the most powerful place I’ve ever seen, making its vulnerability especially poignant.

Inuit perspectives

At the end of our six-day traverse, we were shuttled by boat back to the tiny settlement of Kulusuk, a clutch of brightly colored houses apparently adhering themselves to bedrock by sheer willpower. After immersion in the wildness of East Greenland, we walked up from the harbor with a sense of appreciation for the lives of the locals.

The next day we visited the Kulusuk Museum, where Frederik Willi treated us to a narrated cultural history of the Tunumi Inuit. Once again it was clear how the heavy hand of climate change is implicit in life here. Many of the climate impacts revolve around the sea ice; it’s thinner and spans a shorter season, disrupting the seals, who give birth on the ice, and the polar bears, who hunt the seals from the ice, and the Inuit, who hunt both seals and polar bears. The sea ice, quite literally, connects everything.

Items in the museum were collected and crafted by many members of Willi’s extended family, and each was described with fondness and pride: a rope made entirely of sealskin, mittens with two thumbs so they could be worn on either hand, an inside-out sealskin as an all-natural insulating container, and a wooden kayak built with driftwood from Siberia, since these treeless environs offer no timber.

The museum had modern works, too. Willi showed us a carving made by his son, a brightly colored wooden totem of an assortment of animals on a kayak. It’s an ark, he explained, “to save the animals from global warming.” In the context of the brilliant and time-tested survival adaptations made by the Inuit, the ark struck me as tragic.

Greenlanders, after centuries of adapting to this unforgiving and magical place, no longer hold the keys to their survival — all the rest of us do.

This story originally appeared in Yale Climate Connections. It is republished here as part of ArcticToday’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.