“For every 1oC rise in global temperatures, we experience a rise of 7oC here in Kangerlussuaq.” This is what Adam, our native Greenlandic tour guide, responded when we asked him about how the locals experience global warming. Indeed, Greenland is ground zero for the climate crisis – if all the ice in the country were to melt, the global sea level would rise by 21 feet. Even for a class filled with Environmental Science majors, it was surreal to witness the effects of climate change firsthand like we did in Greenland.
On our second day in town, we got on the bus bright and early to head to Point 660, the only place in the world where you can drive directly onto an ice sheet. We trudged along a narrow gravel road that was nonetheless Greenland’s longest road at about 70 miles long, and the path became increasingly treacherous as we navigated around fjords and glacial lakes. Our tour guide/driver Adam had been taking tourists around these areas for 30 years and seemed in his element. However, he did point out how increased meltwater from the unusually warm summer made the road even more icy and slippery than normal. Eventually, we hit an extremely long patch of semi-solid ice along the route, and after a few uncomfortable bumps, one of the tires on the bus got firmly stuck in the ice. There were a few uncomfortable moments when Adam tried his best to rev the engine and get us out, but he soon concluded that we would need to be towed and called for an even more heavy-duty bus to help. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it to the ice sheet, but we did get the chance to explore the beautiful area where we were stuck for a few hours.
I guess I could technically call myself a “victim” of climate change from this incident, but I won’t pretend that our excursion to the ice sheet was the most important thing in the world. Still, these roads do have more important uses, and this mishap got me thinking about the consequences of a vital access road being immobilized for a town as inaccessible as Kangerlussuaq. To be sure, the Arctic is always unpredictable, but both Adam and our tour leader Inger explained how they had never witnessed this level of meltwater in their many years on this very trip. What would happen if one could no longer access the road to the port, from where all goods and fuel are brought in over the summer? What if scientists could no longer reach Sondrestrom Upper Atmospheric Research Facility, an important research station for atmospheric physics? Only time will tell, I suppose.
The next day, we headed towards Russell Glacier to learn about how the movement of glaciers has impacted the local landscape. With our experience the previous day, Adam was careful to choose an alternate route that would bypass the spot where we got stuck. The bus couldn’t get us all the way – we parked on a frozen glacial lake and began a two-hour hike in sub-zero conditions to reach the glacier. The blue, crevassed face of the glacier was stunning and at one point we even had the chance to walk on the ice.
While our entire class was taken aback by the scenery, I could sense some disappointment on Adam’s face. He told us about how in his 30 years of touring Russell glacier, he had watched it shrivel into a pitiable size compared to the giant it once was. This was even though we were visiting the glacier during winter when it is normally at its biggest size. To put things in scale for us, he pointed to a nearby mountain (technically a moraine for the Geology nerds) and explained that just 15 years ago, the glacier was big enough to obscure any sighting of it. Our teacher Inger also pointed out how the glacier was retreating so fast that it was constantly depositing material and creating new hills, making our hiking trail even more difficult!
Obviously, the impact of the glacier shrinking extends beyond aesthetics or tourism. On our last full day in Greenland, Adam invited us to his house and showed us some drone footage he captured over the summer of the glacier calving off in real time. Our jaws dropped as we saw the sheer volume of ice that fell into the river in a matter of minutes. In 2012, the amount of meltwater was so overwhelming that it destroyed a key bridge in town. For context, this was the bridge we crossed every day to reach the only restaurant in town for dinner, and is the only way to reach many important sites like the cemetery.
The residents of Kangerlussuaq are mostly self-sufficient – they eat the animals that live in the area and reuse the few resources they do have, as I discussed in my previous blog. Still, the pollution caused by people living thousands of miles away has a very real effect on whether they can go about their simple lives. For someone who wants to work in environmental policy, this trip was an important refresher on what climate equity is all about.