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Meltdown of Greenland's Ice Cap

It's 2 Miles Thick!



by Tim Folger

     A little north and west of Greenland's stormy southern tip,
on a steep hillside above an iceberg-clotted fjord first explored
by Erik the Red more than a thousand years ago, sprout some
horticultural anomalies: a trim lawn of Kentucky bluegrass, some
rhubarb, and a few spruce, poplar, fir, and willow trees. They're
in the town of Qaqortoq, 60 degrees 43' north latitude, in
Kenneth Hoegh's backyard, about 400 miles south of the Arctic
     "We had frost last night;" Hoegh says as we walk around his
yard on a warm July morning, examining his plants while
mosquitoes examine us. Qaqortoq's harbor glitters sapphire blue
below us in the bright sun. A small iceberg-about the size of a
city bus-has drifted within a few feet of the towns dock.
     Brightly painted clapboard homes, built with wood imported
from Europe, freckle the nearly bare granite hills that rise like
an amphitheater over the harbor.
     Hoegh, a powerfully built man with reddish blond hair and a
trim beard-he could easily be cast as a Viking-is an agronomist
and former chief adviser to Greenland's agriculture ministry. His
family has lived in Qaqortoq for more than 200 years. Pausing
near the edge of the yard, Hoegh kneels and peers under a white
plastic sheet that protects some turnips he planted last month.
"Wooo! This is quite incredible!" he says with a broad smile. The
turnips' leaves look healthy and green. "I haven't looked at them
for three or four weeks; I didn't water the garden at all this
year. Just rainfall and melting snow. This is amazing. We can
harvest them right now, no problem."
     It's a small thing, the early ripening of turnips on a
summer morning-but in a country where some 80 percent of the land
lies buried beneath an ice sheet up to two miles thick and where
some people have never touched a tree, it stands for a large
thing. Greenland is warming twice as fast as most of the world.
Satellite measurements show that its vast ice sheet, which holds
nearly 7 percent of the world's fresh water, is shrinking by
about 50 cubic miles each year. The melting ice accelerates the
warming-newly exposed ocean and land absorb sunlight that the ice
used to reflect into space. If all of Greenland's ice melts in
the centuries ahead, sea level will rise by 24 feet, inundating
coastlines around the planet.
     Yet in Greenland itself, apprehension about climate change
is often overshadowed by great expectations. For now this
self-governing dependency of Denmark still leans heavily on its
former colonial ruler. Denmark pumps $620 million into
Greenland's anemic economy every year-more than $11,000 for each
Greenlander. But the Arctic meltdown has already started to open
up access to oil, gas, and mineral resources that could give
Greenland the financial and political independence its people
crave. Greenland's coastal waters are estimated to hold half
as much oil as the North Sea's fields. Warmer temperatures would
also mean a longer growing season for Greenland's 50 or so farms
and perhaps reduce the country's utter reliance on imported food.
At times these days it feels as if the whole country is holding
its breath-waiting to see whether the "greening of Greenland;" so
regularly announced in the international press, is actually going
to happen.

     GREENLAND'S FIRST EXPERIENCE of hype happened a millennium
ago when Erik the Red arrived from Iceland with a small party of
Norsemen, aka Vikings. Erik was on the lam (from the Old Norse
word lemja) for killing a man who had refused to return some
borrowed bedsteads. In 982 he landed along a fjord near Qaqortoq,
and then, despite the bedsteads incident, he returned to Iceland
to spread word about the country he had found, which, according
to the Saga of Erik the Red, "he called Greenland, as he said
people would be attracted there if it had a favorable name:"
Erik's bald-faced marketing worked. Some 4,000 Norse eventually
settled in Greenland.
     The Vikings, notwithstanding their reputation for ferocity,
were essentially farmers who did a bit of pillaging, plundering,
and New World discovering on the side. Along the sheltered fjords
of southern and western Greenland, they raised sheep and some
cattle, which is what farmers in Greenland do today along the
very same fjords. They built churches and hundreds of farms; they
traded sealskins and walrus ivory for timber and iron from
Europe. Erik's son Leif set out from a farm about 35 miles
northeast of Qaqortoq and discovered North America sometime
around 1000. In Greenland the Norse settlements held on for more
than four centuries. Then, abruptly, they vanished. The demise of
those tough, seafaring farmers offers an unsettling example of
the threats climate change poses to even the most resourceful
cultures. The Vikings settled Greenland during a period of
exceptional warmth, the same warm period that saw expanded
agriculture and the construction of great cathedrals in Europe.
     By 1300, though, Greenland became much colder, and living
there became ever more challenging. The Inuit, who had arrived
from northern Canada in the meantime, pushing south along the
west coast of Greenland as the Vikings pushed north, fared much
better. (Modern Greenlanders are mostly descended from them and
from Danish missionaries and colonists who arrived in the 18th
century.) The Inuit brought with them dogsleds, kayaks, and other
essential tools for hunting and fishing in the Arctic. Some
researchers have argued that the Norse settlers failed because
they remained fatally attached to their old Scandinavian ways,
relying heavily on imported farm animals instead of exploiting
local resources.
     But more recent archaeological evidence suggests the Norse
too were well adapted to their new home. Thomas McGovern, an
anthropologist at Hunter College in Manhattan, says the Norse
organized annual communal hunts for harbor seals, especially once
the climate cooled and domestic livestock began to die.
Unfortunately, harbor seals also succumbed. "Adult harbor seals
can survive cold summers, but their pups can't;" says McGovern.
The Norse may have been forced to extend their hunts farther
offshore in search of other seal species, in waters that were
becoming more stormy.
     "We now think the Norse had a very refined social system
that required lots of community labor, but there was a major
vulnerability - they had to have most of their adults out there
trying to get the seals;" says McGovern. "A trigger for the end
of the Norse in Greenland could have been catastrophic loss of
life from one bad storm:" The Inuit would have been less
vulnerable because they tended to hunt in small groups. "It's a
much more complicated story than we thought," McGovern says. "The
old story was just, the silly Vikings come north, screw up, and
die. But the new story actually is a bit scarier, because they
look pretty well adapted, well organized, doing a lot of things
rightand they die anyway."
     The last historically documented event of Norse life in
Greenland was not a perfect storm, though, nor a famine nor an
exodus to Europe. It was a wedding held at a church near the head
of Hvalsey fjord, about ten miles northeast of Qaqortoq. Much of
the church still stands on a grassy slope beneath a towering
granite peak.

     On a cool morning last summer a strand of fog lingered high
up on the peak's eastern face like a gossamer pennant. Wild thyme
with delicate, purple-red flowers spread low across the ground in
front of the 800-year-old church, now roofed only by sky. All
four of the three-foot-thick, stone-slab walls remain intact-the
eastern wall is about 18 feet tall. They were evidently built by
people who intended to stay here a while. Within the walls, grass
and sheep droppings cover the uneven ground where, on September
14, 1408, Thorstein Olafsson married Sigrid Bjornsdottir. A
letter sent from Greenland to Iceland in 1424 mentions the
wedding, perhaps as part of an inheritance dispute, but provides
no news of strife, disease, or any inkling of impending disaster.
Nothing more was ever heard from the Norse settlements.

     GREENLANDERS TODAY, all 56,000 of them, still live on the
rocky fringes between ice and sea, most in a handful of towns
along the west coast. Glaciers and a coastline deeply indented by
fjords make it impossible to build roads between the towns;
everyone travels by boat, helicopter, plane, or, in the winter,
dogsled. More than a quarter of all Greenlanders, some 15,500,
live in Nuuk, Greenland's capital, about 300 miles north of
Qaqortoq as the narwhal swims.
     Take one part quaint Greenlandic town, complete with fjord
and exhilarating mountainous backdrop, mix with maybe four parts
grim Soviet-bloc-style apartments, add two traffic lights, daily
traffic jams, and a nine-hole golf course, and you've got Nuuk.
The sprawling, rundown apartment blocks are a legacy of a forced
modernization program from the 1950s and 1960s, when the Danish
government moved people from small traditional communities into a
few large towns. The intent was to improve access to schools and
health care, reduce costs, and provide employees for processing
plants in the cod-fishing industry, which boomed in the early
1960s but has since collapsed. Whatever benefits the policy
brought, it bred a host of social problems-alcoholism, fractured
families, suicide-that still plague Greenland.
     But this morning, on the first day of summer 2009, the mood
in Nuuk is jubilant: Greenland is celebrating the start of a new
era. In November 2008 its citizens voted overwhelmingly for
increased independence from Denmark, which has ruled Greenland in
some form since 1721. The change is to become official this
morning in a ceremony at Nuuk's harbor, the heart of the old
colonial town. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark will formally
acknowledge the new relationship between her country and
Kalaallit Nunaat, as the locals call their homeland.
     Per Rosing, a slender 58-year-old Inuit man with a gentle
manner and a graying black ponytail, conducts the Greenland
National Choir. "I'm just happy, totally happy," he says, putting
a hand over his heart as we walk with a large crowd toward the
harbor, down streets still wet from last night's freezing rain
and snow. People are streaming out of Block P, Nuuk's biggest
apartment building, which alone houses about one percent of
Greenland's population. Its windowless, concrete end has become a
frame for a defiantly optimistic work of art: a four-story-tall,
white-and-red Greenlandic flag. A local artist sewed the flag
with the help of schoolchildren from hundreds of articles of
     By 7:30 people are packed shoulder to shoulder on the dock.
Others perch on the roofs of old wooden homes around the harbor;
a few watch from kayaks, paddling just enough to stay put in
calm, metallic-looking water. The ceremony begins with the choir
singing Greenlands national anthem, "Nunarput Utoqqar-
suanngoravit--You, Our Ancient Land." Rosing turns to the crowd
and gestures for everyone to join in. As of today, Kalaallisut,
an Inuit dialect, is the official Greenlandic language, supp-
lanting Danish.
     Then, shortly after eight o'clock, the Danish queen, wearing
the traditional Inuit garb of a married woman-red, thigh-high,
sealskin boots, or kamiks, a beaded shawl, and sealfur short -
presents the new self-government charter to Josef Tuusi
Motzfeldt, the speaker of Greenland's Parliament. The crowd
cheers, and a cannon fires on a hill above the harbor, sending a
pressure wave through us like a shared infusion of adrenaline.
UNDER THE NEW CHARTER, Denmark still manages Greenland's foreign
policy; the annual subsidy continues as well. But Greenland now
exerts greater control over its own domestic affairsand in
particular, over its vast mineral resources. Without them,
there's no chance that Greenland could ever become economically
independent. Right now fishing accounts for more than 80 percent
of Greenland's export income; shrimp and halibut are the
mainstays. While halibut stocks are holding steady, shrimp
populations have dropped. Royal Greenland, the stateowned fishing
company, is bleeding money.
     The reasons for the decline of the shrimpknown here as "pink
gold" - are unclear. Soren Rysgaard, director of the Greenland
Climate Research Center in Nuuk, says that Greenland's climate,
besides getting warmer, is becoming more unpredictable. Rising
sea temperatures may have disrupted the timing between the
hatching of shrimp larvae and the blooms of phytoplankton the
larvae feed on; no one really knows. Fishermen hope cod will
return as waters warm. But after a small uptick a few years ago,
cod numbers have fallen again.
     "The traditional way of life in Greenland was based on
stability;" says Rysgaard. Apart from southern Greenland, which
has always been swept by Atlantic storms, the climate, although
formidably cold, seldom surprised. The huge ice sheet, with its
attendant mass of cold, dense air, enforced stability over most
of the country. "In the winter you could hunt or fish with your
sled dogs on the sea ice. In the summer you could hunt from a
kayak. What's happening now is that the instability typical of
southern Greenland is moving north."
     Johannes Mathaeussen, a 47-year-old Inuit halibut fisherman,
has seen those changes firsthand. Mathaeussen lives in Ilulissat
(Greenlandic for "icebergs"), a town of 4,500 people and almost
that many sled dogs located 185 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
On an overcast day in late June we set out from Ilulissat's
harbor, motoring past a big shrimp trawler in Mathaeussen's
15-foot-long open boat, a typical craft for halibut fishermen
here. Summer fishing is still good for them, but winter is
becoming a problem.
     "Twenty years ago, in the winter, you could drive a car over
the ice to Disko Island," Mathaeussen says, pointing to a large
island about 30 miles off the coast. "For 10 of the last 12
years, the bay has not frozen over in the winter:" When the bay
used to freeze, Mathaeussen and other fishermen would rig their
dogsleds and go ice fishing ten miles up the fjord. "I would
spend a day and a night and bring back 200 or 500 pounds of
halibut on my sled. Now winter fishing in the fjord is dangerous
with a heavy load; the ice is too thin."
     Mathaeussen steers his boat through a broken canyon of ice
that is drifting imperceptibly out to sea. The largest bergs rise
200 feet above us with keels scraping the bottom 600 feet down.
Each one has its own topography of hills, cliffs, caves, and
arroyos of smooth white flanks polished by meltwater streams. All
this ice comes from Jakobshavn Isbrae, aka Sermeq Kujalleq, the
"southern glacier," which drains 7 percent of Greenland's ice
sheet and launches more icebergs than any other Northern
Hemisphere glacier. (The iceberg that sank the Titanic probably
calved here.) In the past decade Sermeq Kujalleq has retreated
almost ten miles up the fjord. It is Greenland's biggest tourist
draw - 19,375 people came to see global warming in action here in
2008. Tourism remains a distant second to fishing, though; the
season is short, accommodations are limited, and travel is

     THE FOUNDATION of Greenland's future economy lies out beyond
Disko Island, just over the horizon from Mathaeussen's
spectacular fishing ground: That's where the oil is. The sea off
the central west coast now typically remains ice free for nearly
half the year, a month longer than 25 years ago. With the greater
ease of working in Greenland's waters, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and
other oil companies have acquired exploration licenses. Cairn
Energy, a Scottish company, plans to drill its first exploration
wells this year.
     "We've issued 13 licenses covering 130,000 square kilometers
off the west coast, roughly three times the size of mainland
Denmark," says Jorn Skov Nielsen, director of Greenland's Bureau
of Minerals and Petroleum. We're at a bustling trade convention
in a conference center in Nuuk on a rainy Saturday afternoon. The
smell of oil wafts from a rock samplea chunk of basalt the size
and shape of half a bowling ball-that is displayed on a nearby
table. "Production could be possible in ten years if we're
lucky," Nielsen says. "We have some very impressive estimates for
northwest and northeast Greenland - 50 billion barrels of oil and
gas:" With oil prices now topping $80 a barrel, those reserves
would be worth more than four trillion dollars, a windfall that
could fund the country's independence.
     To some Greenlanders it would be a Faustian bargain. Sofie
Petersen, the Lutheran bishop, has an office overlooking the
harbor in one of Nuuk's few surviving old wooden homes. Just up
the hill stands a statue of Hans Egede, a quixotic Lutheran
missionary who came here in 1721 looking for survivors of the
lost Norse settlements. He found no Norsemen but founded Nuuk, or
Godthab, as the Danes called it, and set in motion the Danish
colonization of Greenland and its conversion to Christianity.
Like nearly all Greenlanders, Petersen has a Danish surname, but
she is Inuit.
     "I think oil will damage our way of living," she says. "Of
course everyone needs money, but should we sell our souls? What
will happen if we are millionaires, every one of us, and we cant
deliver Greenland as we know it to our grandchildren? I would
rather have little money and give the land to our grandchildren
     "It's a big dilemma to deal with the oil issue, since the
Arctic people are the ones most exposed to climate change," says
Kuupik Kleist, Greenland's popular new prime minister. Sometimes
called Greenland's Leonard Cohen-he has recorded a few CDs-Kleist
is a broadly built, owlish man of 52 with a husky, sonorous
voice. The irony in his country becoming a major producer of the
very stuff that is helping to melt its ice sheet is not lost on
     "We need a stronger economy," Kleist says, "and we have to
utilize the opportunities that oil could bring to us. Environ-
mentalists around the world advise us not to exploit the oil
reserves. But we are not in the situation where we can replace
the declining income from our fisheries, and we don't have any
other resources for the time being that hold as much potential as
     Actually there is one other resource with enormous
potential, but it is equally fraught. Greenland Minerals and
Energy Ltd., an Australian company, has discovered what may be
the world's largest deposit of rare earth metals on a plateau
above the town of Narsaq in southern Greenland. The rare earths
are crucial in a wide variety of green technologies - hybrid-car
batteries, wind turbines, and compact fluorescent lightbulbs -
and China now controls more than 95 percent of the world's
     The development of the deposit at Narsaq would fundamentally
shift global markets and transform Greenland's economy. John
Mair, general manager of Greenland Minerals and Energy, says that
Narsaq's reserves could sustain a largescale mining operation for
well over 50 years, employing hundreds in a town that has been
devastated by the collapse of cod fishing. His company has dozens
of employees prospecting the site right now. But there is a major
obstacle to developing it: The ore is also laced with uranium,
and Greenland's government has a complete ban on uranium mining.
"We haven't changed those regulations and are not planning to;"
Kleist says. There is no easy path, it seems, to a greener
Greenland, in any sense of the word.

     GREENLANDERS JOKINGLY call the area around Narsaq and
Qaqortoq, Sineriak Banaaneqarfik, the Banana Coast. Today the
grandchildren of Inuit hunters till fields there, along fjords
where Vikings once farmed. If Greenland is greening anywhere, it
is here. But as soon as I arrive, the agronomist Kenneth Hoegh
cautions me to forget what I've read about Greenland's sudden
cornucopia. "Arctic Harvest;" read one headline; "In Greenland,
Potatoes Thrive;" read another. Potatoes do grow in Greenland
these days. But not so very many just yet.

     On a gorgeous July morning Hoegh and I are cruising at about
25 knots up the fjord settled by Erik the Red a millennium ago.
Our destination is Ipiutaq, population three. Kalista Poulsen is
waiting for us on a rocky outcrop below his farm on the northern
shore of the fjord. Even in faded gray overalls, Poulsen looks
more like a scholar than a farmer: He's slender, wears glasses,
and speaks English with what sounds, strangely enough, like a
French accent. His great-greatgrandfather was an angakkoq - a
shaman - one of the last in Greenland, who had killed men in
feuds before converting to Christianity after having a vision of
     We walk through Poulsen's lush fields of timothy and
ryegrass. Compared with the fjord's sheer gray walls, the fodder
crops look almost fluorescent. In September Poulsen will acquire
his first sheep, which is what nearly all of Greenland's farmers
raise, mostly for meat. He bought the farm in 2005, as the
outside world was first hearing talk of a gentler, warmer
     From where Poulsen stands, the promise seems remote. "This
is my war zone," he says, as we trudge across muddy, boulder-
strewn ground that he's clearing for cultivation with a backhoe
and a tractor with big tillers he had delivered on old military
landing craft. When I ask Poulsen if he thinks global warming
will make life easier for him or his child, his expression
becomes almost pained. He looks at me appraisingly as he lights a
cigarette, which momentarily disperses a cloud of mosquitoes.
     "Last year we almost had a catastrophe;" he says. "It was so
dry the harvest was only half of normal. I don't think we can
count on normal weather. If it's getting warmer, we'll have to
water more, invest in a watering system. In the winter we don't
have normal snow; it rains, and then it freezes. That's not good
for the grass. It's just exposed in the cold."

     Over lunch in Poulsen's white wood-frame home, the mystery
of his French accent is solved: Agathe Devisme, his companion, is
French. Savoring the fusion meal she has prepared - shrimp and
catfish au gratin, mattak, or raw whale skin, and apple cake
flavored with wild angelicaI think back to the more rustic dinner
I'd enjoyed a few nights earlier in Qaqortoq, at an annual gala
attended by nearly every farming family on the Banana Coast.
     After dinner a white-haired Inuit man had begun playing an
accordion, and everyone in the hall, some 450 people, had linked
arms, swaying side to side as they sang a traditional Greenlandic

Summer, summer, how wonderful 
How incredibly good.
The frost is gone, 
The frost is gone...

     Leaving the Poulsens, Hoegh and I run back down the fjord
with the fon--the wind off the ice sheet - at our stern. Hoegh
would be happy, he had said earlier, if Greenland's farms were to
get to the point where they grow most of their own winter fodder
for their sheep and cattle; many farms, far from feeding their
countrymen, now import more than half their fodder from Europe.
     In Hoegh's house that evening we stand looking out the
window at his garden. The fon has become fierce. Horizontal
sheets of rain flatten his rhubarb and his turnips; his trees
bend like supplicants before implacable old gods. "Damn!" Hoegh
says quietly. "The weather's tough here. It will always be


Welllll....finally I got the answer as to why Greenland is called
Greenland; that old Viking guy needed to call it a nice name to
get many others to go live there.

So in today's climate that huge 2 mile thick ice cap is melting
away, the grass will grow, and maybe it will truly be a

Keith Hunt

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