The Planet Ice Project: The Greenland Icecap

James Martin, writing exclusively for as he photographs and researches his book, Planet Ice, reports from Greenland's Icecap.
By James Martin - September 30th, 2007

Editor's Note: 

Writer and photographer James Martin, author with Mark Twight of Extreme Alpinism, has turned his attention to the vanishing ice of planet Earth. Embarking on a new book, Planet Ice, Martin will blog exclusively for over the next two years as he visits the polar regions, the last of the Equatorial glaciers, and the ice of more temperate mountains, to document how they show, all too clearly, the devestating results of global climate change. For this, his fifth dispatch, he heads for the Greenland Icecap.

I caught my first glimpse of the Icefjord as the Greenland Air twin prop began its descent. At first I took the thirty-mile long channel of ice for a glacier, but then as the individual icebergs became clear, I realized this was something unique, a chaos of ice held captive by an underwater terminal moraine.

Upstream, the Jakobshavn Glacier flows into the Icefjord at the rate of 35 meters per day. That could supply New York City with water for a year. Even with this rapid flow, the glacier is still losing ground, retreating up the channel toward the ice sheet that blankets 80% of Greenland, the largest island in the world.

I went to Greenland with four scientists studying the behavior of lakes that form on the surface near the edge of the ice sheet where the ice thins to just 3,000 feet, deep enough to fill Yosemite Valley but less than a third of the thickness at the Summit. Their data would help describe how the lakes drain each summer, how fast they drain, whether the water reaches the base of the ice, and how much faster the ice moves when lubricated by water.

Some of the team had set up seismic stations near two lakes and monitored their status later at home with satellite imagery. This season Maya Bhatia, and Drs. Ian Joughin, Sarah Das, Mark Behn checked on the previous years' stations and set up additional instruments. They flew to their first camp while I remained in the tourist town, Illulissat, to photograph the Icefjord.

I joined a few people on a small boat for a midnight cruise where the Icefjord met the sea. The sun skimmed along the horizon illuminating sheer cliffs and oddly eroded features of the bergs. We couldn't approach too closely lest a wave caused by falling ice swamp our vessel. If that happened, we would have minutes to live in the frigid water.

A few nights later I hiked to a promontory overlooking the terminus of the Icefjord as a blade of light slashed through dark clouds. Groups of bergs shone brightly against a gloomy background for a moment before the light moved to the next grouping. Near the shore, the water, once clogged with ice, moved fast, carrying small bergs out to sea, but the giants remain immobile. Soon a large piece would hang up on the moraine and the ice traffic jam would begin again, but for the moment the current had opened the small bay. I hear the characteristic explosive exhale of a whale. Two humpbacks circlef slowly in the gray light a hundred yards from shore.

After a week in Illulissat, I flew by helicopter to Camp 2 on the ice sheet. When I looked for a flat spot to set up my tent, I encountered water-filled cylinders called "cryoconites" dotting the surface. When a bit of dust is revealed by melting, the area covered by dust absorbs more heat than the surrounding reflective ice so it melts faster. As the cryoconite grows deeper and wider, it reveals more dust deposited when the snow originally accumulated, compounding the melting. Neighboring cryoconites melt into one another to form meter-wide holes or wider. I eventually pitched my tent over a number of smaller holes.

After dinner our group walked toward a lake-bed that had drained a few weeks earlier. According to seismic data and satellite photos, the lake had drained in two hours. As we approached in low late evening light, we came upon a wall of ice 70 meters high and 700 meters long that had been thrown up when the lake water rushed down cravasses, probably to the bottom of the ice. Ice blocks lay scattered in shallow pools nearby, and tunnels revealed a blue grotto of sculptured ice and water. I was stunned to find this landscape where I had expected a featureless desert of ice. The scientists walked quickly, postulating how the water escaped so quickly and what the remains indicated, even more excited than I was.

Despite difficulties getting supplies to camp, the scientists kept themselves busy, leaving me to my own devices. I wandered to a nearby lake alone while they worked. Within minutes all sign of the camp disappeared. I noted the position of the sun and figured it would move about 15 degrees an hour, close enough for a short hike. I crossed a few streams and balanced on ridges between cryoconites until I arrived at the shore. The lake was a pastel blue brushstroke in shallow depression. I couldn't hear a sound except for my breathing. The world was ice, water and air.

I returned alone to the blue grotto the night before we flew back to Illulissat. I crawled into the caves, shot at water level, and watched the sun disappear below horizon for the first time in more than two weeks. At 1AM I sat on a chunk of ice before returning to camp, waiting for the sun to appear again after its ten-minute vacation. I noticed that it was warm enough for water to drip off the ice blocks. I shook off an emotional chill and walked back to camp.


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