The Ice Fjord At The End of The World

Greenland, May 2016

Icebergs from the Jakobshavn glacier, near Ilulissat in Greenland
Wayne Chambliss at 2am

The adventure starts in Reykjavik, Thursday night. The endless summer light. That grin.

It’s 1am when Wayne’s cab gets in from the airport. The last bar in town is closing up so we buy a couple of beers apiece to take down to the harbour to drink in the dusky, never-quite-night air, sitting on railway sleepers, legs hanging over the water.

He’s come in from Portland via Los Angeles, me from London; in the last 12 months we’ve roadtripped across the desert southwestern US, walked the length of the Thames and climbed the biggest single-day ascent in the US to welcome in New Year’s.

Now we’re headed north: Greenland. I’ve wanted to go since I was 18, to see how tradition and modernity coexist in the modern Arctic — and to see how people live on the edge of environmental impossibility.

As we planned this trip, that impossibility grew ever more present-tense. Month by month, 2016 set new record lows for Arctic sea ice coverage. The surface of the Greenland ice sheet was melting two months early due to freakishly warm temperatures: 16.6 °C (62 °F) in Nuuk, the capital, on 11 April — twenty centigrade above average. It made it feel as though we were going to see this place while we still could.

Source: National Snow & Ice Data Center
Sleepy sled dogs in Ilulissat, Greenland

Ilulissat

After two days of travel (London — Reykjavik and Reykjavik — Nuuk), on Saturday we took a small, 37-seater DHC-8 propeller plane to Ilulissat. It’s the second largest town in Greenland, population 4,500 people and 4,000 sled dogs. Locals walked around town in Arc’teryx and Canada Goose jackets, Salomon-shod — as do the tourists.

The apartment we were staying in was right on the water, overlooking Disko Bay. The scene from the windows was ever-changing and we watched it for hours at a time. Woke up Monday morning to find a mountain had floated into view. Iceberg TV, we called it: there’s only one channel but by god it’s a good one.

A mountainous iceberg in Disko Bay, Greenland — Disko Island in the background

The bergs shifted from brightest sunlit white to evening pink to a thousand shadowed blues; the sky was vast and a world in itself. We would sit for hours watching weather systems emerge and swell as they travelled across the bay; we would watch the mountainous shores of Disko Island appear and disappear in cloud and haze — sometimes so very bright and close. I guessed it to be perhaps 10 miles off — but it was actually 55km (34 miles), said Jannik, the Danish man who ran our guesthouse apartment.

Distances do something weird in the clean cold Arctic air.

Out hiking, our mileage proved hard to predict, too, on this rocky and boggy ground. Each attempt to cover a particular distance was scuppered by geological distractions to explore — or simply long periods just sitting and looking at the landscape, mountains, sky and ice.

Time was disoriented and days blurred into one another: above the Arctic Circle the sun never sets in the summer; at 69.2° it is light continuously from 20 May to 20 July. Nine in the evening felt like mid-afternoon. Our hikes took an unhurried start and ended late. Fishing boats came and went from the harbour throughout the night — picking a different path through the ever-shifting bergscape each day.

Fishing boats coming and going from Ilulissat harbour on the stroke of midnight

Encounters

On Sunday we hiked out of town to the icefjord.

Jakobshavn glacier (Sermeq Kujalleq in Greenlandic) drains 6.5% of the Greenland ice sheet and produces 10% of the country’s icebergs. From the glacier’s calving front, the bergs take about 15 months to travel 70km down the fjord to the open sea. The largest bergs, nearing a kilometre in height (most of it, of course, underwater), get caught on the submarine moraine at the end of the fjord, producing a spectacular traffic jam until they melt or break up enough to drift off to sea.

The fjord is about a mile away from town. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, which mostly manifests in a boardwalk over a bog, a few signs, and three walking trails around the end of the fjord, each marked with coloured dots painted on to the local granite. We followed the blue dots past the ancient settlement of Sermermiut — and then just stood on the headland and looked. And looked.

The mouth of the fjord is about 7km wide, and it was choked with giant ice bergs. Tall pointed Himalayan peaks, towering cliff-faces, and tempting snow-smoothed ski-slopes. Bergs so big they had their own ponds, caves and arches. Bergy bits — the marvellous and entirely legitimate, technical term for icebergs under 5m tall, and growlers (under 1m). A litter of snow and ice fragments covering the sea surface like rubble from the explosions at the glacier’s calving front. Barely a metre of clear water to be seen.

So much ice is ejected from this glacier that it’s measured in gigatons or cubic kilometres. Thirty five cubic kilometres of ice flow down this fjord per year, three times the water usage of the entire United Kingdom.

Icebergs at the end of the Jakobshavn fjord, Greenland

As we took it all in, a deep blue vertical pressure seam on a 70m-tall berg exploded in front of us.

Or as we tried to take it all in. Really it is all too immense, too much. You find your mind twisting and shying away from confronting the implications, the existential mass, the gravity of what is right in front of your eyes.

Wayne went down to the shoreline and fished out a chunk of ice. I bit into a corner. Tasted old.

Ice at the bottom of the Greenland ice sheet dates back up to 130,000 years, since before the last Ice Age.

A 1:100,000 scale map of Ilulissat and the fjord (available here)

Trails untrod

I came to Ilulissat with an audacious dream: to walk to the icecap. The distance, 40 kilometres or thereabouts: a roundtrip could be possible in three to four days. Navigation would be tough, with mostly no path visible on the ground. There would be snow to cross, rivers to ford, bog to traverse; countless ways to sprain an ankle or worse out in this Arctic wilderness. But there was a dotted line drawn on the map, and a huge poetic appeal. It was dream enough to spend serious money on flights and gather the kit we’d need: sleeping bags, tent, emergency tracker.

On arrival, though, we slowed down. Recognised more deeply that this was unfamiliar country. Needed to give it time to understand weather patterns, wind, the risks. Went out for a short little 9km walk on a coastal path which took hours and hours because it was more important to stop, and look at the ice, and try to take it all in. To scramble cross-country, down to the shoreline or out to the tip of the headland, to see what could be found there.

Decided not to rush. Decided a hard route-march would be missing the point.

Part of me resented this, nonetheless — knew it was wisest to stay within my capacities but yet smarted, felt held back by lacking the fitness I needed but hadn’t built during a difficult spring of overwork and the blues. Felt embarrassed and naive to have thought the inland hike to be possible; felt ashamed not to be getting out there.

Stayed on the damn sofa for half the day entirely, some days; read books, had some real conversations. Wayne and I both needed the rest.

Wayne eyeing up bouldering routes in a gully thickly blanketed in moss

When we hiked we went off-piste, just looked up at a hilltop and said, “Let’s see what’s up there.” Circumnavigated snowdrifts, still three or more feet deep. Dodged bogs. Scrambled up granite and basalt. Jumped from rock to rock. Peered down to look at the plant life. Hiked over tussocks of grass and on thick cushions of moss, our feet sinking inches deep into the softness.

It’s too cold for much in the way of grass in Ilulissat; it’s only in May that the temperature tips above freezing. Instead the rocks are colonised by mosses and bryophytes: emerald green velvety cushiony ones, wispy dark and mint green beardlike wisps, and bright neon pastel lichens, yellow and green and orange. They form mats inches, maybe even feet thick; there’s not enough warmth to really allow for decomposition into soil. I lay back on this soft mossy bed in endless bright late afternoon sunshine and imagined its tendrils oh-so-slowly growing into my hair and clothes and bones. I wanted to stay here longer.

Hyperobjects

The ice is too big to think — both demanding your attention, demanding you stop and sit and look, and simultaneously stilling the language you have to think about it. It is hard to pay attention: the mind ducks and shies in order to avoid confronting what’s in front of you fully. It is easier to think smaller thoughts.

This is the end of the world, that’s the thing. I don’t need to replay the facts to you.

The Greenland ice sheet formed over tens of thousands of years as snowfall fell upon snowfall and the drifts compacted under their own weight. Now, 2–3km thick, it covers 1.7 million square miles, 80% of the country. The ice is dynamic: it always flows downhill and spills out into glaciers; it always melts a little in summertime and replenishes from winter snows. The icefjord has existed as long as the ice sheet; it is not itself a symptom of sickness.

But there is precious little equilibrium in a these complex systems and we’re well outside it. It’s far too warm in the eastern Arctic. The percentage of ice surface melt was at unprecedented levels for May. July 2012 saw the first moment in history when the entire surface of the ice sheet (well, 97%) was melting. It may well happen again this year. The water disappears down glowing turquoise moulins to the base of the ice sheet, lubricating its flow across the bedrock. The glaciers speed up.

The Jakobshavn Isbrae is one of the three biggest flows off the Greenland ice sheet. It’s the fastest moving glacier in the world, at up to 40m per day in the summer, and it has accelerated significantly in the past 20 years. In the last century, this one glacier raised world sea levels by 2.5cm; as a whole, the ice sheet contains enough water to raise sea levels seven metres. And 104 years ago this glacier most likely calved the iceberg that sank the Titanic.

Catastrophe is integral to the geography of this place.

But as I say, the mind shies away from trying to comprehend the ice sheet in full systems perspective — hydrological cycles, global warming, human responsibility. It is easier to look upon these bergs than the dazzling white oblivion that is the ice sheet itself. They break it into chunks, make it a little bit more manageable.

Wayne mentioned eco-theorist Timothy Morton and his concept of ‘hyperobjects’ — things too big to think. The word proved a useful one for us as we talked (another candidate, ‘holy terror’).

Morton writes about global warming rather than the ice specifically, but every word resonates with the strangeness we felt in this place:

“Hyperobjects are viscous: they stick to us and penetrate us, thus abolishing concepts of distance and norms concerning meaning and propriety (metalanguage).
Hyperobjects are nonlocal: they do not manifest at a specific time and place but rather are stretched out in such a way as to challenge the idea that a thing must occupy a specific place and time.
Hyperobjects have a temporality so different from current human ones that they force us to drop the idea of time as a neutral container. Instead, hyperobjects “emit” time just like planets (Einstein).
Hyperobjects occupy high dimensional phase spaces that are unavailable to direct human perception. Computational prosthetics are required even to think them (mapping global warming requires petaflops of computing speed, for instance).
Hyperobjects exist “interobjectively,” which is to say that they consist, of, yet are not reducible to, interactions between a large number of entities.”
— Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature blog, Dec 2012

The end of the world has already occurred, says Morton; we are left weak and fragile. The cover of the book is, of course, an iceberg: one eighth above the water line, seven eighths below. Things too big to see.

Crevasses and meltwater in the inactive glacier, Sermeq Avannarleq

A flight

Tuesday lunchtime, Wayne came back from buying some beers with a suggestion: let’s fly to the ice cap. If we weren’t going to hike the 80–90km round trip to reveal the ice slowly and arduously, then here was another way to encounter that immensity. We had come so far to see it, after all.

I took no persuading.

We walked to the airport in glorious sunshine under a bright blue canopy of sky. Flying in from Iceland, we had glimpsed the icesheet amid snowy mountains for only a minute before white cloud concealed the scene; cloud enfolded our landings at Nuuk then Ilulissat too. This would be a first, perfect encounter.

5pm at the airport we looked around: who were we supposed to be meeting? Next to us, a Greenlandic Arnold Schwarzenegger: khakis, aviators, combat boots, chiselled chin; a general air of badassery. An Air Greenland flight landed and shipped out 30-odd people through the terminal in 10 minutes flat. Friends and family left, chattering happily. We had the terminal almost to ourselves.

Then Ricky arrived. Wayne commented that a guythis tall, blond and matinee-idol handsome couldn’t be anyone else but the pilot. Nope.

Having qualified as a pilot last year, Ricky had come to Ilulissat to fly 8-seater prop jets as preparation for a career, he hoped, flying even smaller planes in even further flung places. He greeted us cheerily, then simply opened a door in the terminal and led us out airside to our plane. We buckled into our seats. Headsets on. Then Ricky outlined our flight plan to air traffic control as he lined us up straight down the 800m runway for takeoff.

The plane rose. Turned 210 degrees to the left, out over Disko Bay, to fly to the glacier front over the hills inland from Ilulissat. The whole town below us. The sea golden. Icebergs sailing off into the distance.

Ilulissat town and the bergs piled up at the mouth of the icefjord

Flying over the mountains, we first approached Sermeq Avannarleq, a dormant glacier tongue, then flew over the dirty ground-down rocks of the island of Nunatarsuaq which separates the two glaciers, a bulwark withstanding the pressure of billions of tons of ice. Then, finally, a series of sweeping turns over the main Jakobshavn glacier face where the icebergs calve.

Ricky took us down low, to 200m, to get a better view.

The calving face of the Jakobshavn glacier (photo: Wayne Chambliss)

The ice sheet, compressed into a hundred thousand sharp crevasses and ridges, seems to alternately just fall apart into snowy pulp and to calve into vast bergs, several square kilometres at a time. The pressure cracks radiate back in serried rows for miles, as 110,000 sq km of ice bears down. Within the fissures, occasional meltwater pools — a cobalt blue so exquisite it hardly seems natural.


On the Arctic Sea Ice Forum, they say the melt ponds are visible a month ahead of last year. They reckon 2016 will see record glacial retreat, the calving front receding back deeper into the ice sheet — something so vast, yet not quite infinite enough.

The ice sheet carries faint echoes of Death Valley on a thousand times the scale: the bright mineral white of the salt pan, the fractal topology of the Devil’s Golf Course. Temperatures on the very edge of human survivability. Little precipitation: they’re both deserts. A vastness, a silence, an enmeshedness in yet vaster hydrological systems and a sudden eruption up to the surface of great gobs of geologic time.

The feeling of awe turns out to be a lot like bewilderment. My photographs looking out into the centre of the ice didn’t work; they’re just formless bright.

To have walked that 90km circuit to the ice sheet and back should be called what it would be: a pilgrimage.


This essay is adapted from my Instagram posts — I’ve started writing lengthy captions on the site as a kind of blogging (IG: hautepop). The story starts here.

I also write a newsletter — Disturbances — about dust, environment, and catastrophe. Take a look.

I travelled with Wayne Chambliss, who’s also documented this trip on Instagram. We stayed with Paa & Jannik in Ilulissat, and Nivi in Nuuk. Thank you to them all for their time, conversation and generosity.