Spending A Week Above Arctic Circle On M.S. Fram Off Greenland’s West Coast

A guest post by Bud Ward reposted from The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media.

“Pay attention to Greenland.”

For one exceptional week this summer, that is in fact about all I did.

Paid attention, and close attention at that.

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Paying attention to Greenland, mind you, doesn’t come naturally to many North Americans. There are no direct commercial flights, and it’s distant and foreign in ways that even more distant destinations are not. Don’t be surprised to hear people say that after flying over Greenland en route to or from Europe … they’re certain it’s somewhere they have no desire to visit.

Mind you, my trip there was no research expedition. Nothing of the sort. Nor was it really a “business trip,” at least not in the conventional sense of that term, though it’s no stretch for one in the climate change field to see any trip to Greenland as inevitably involving a fair dose of business amidst the splendor.

I for sure did.

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I was, in fact, the guest of my travel-writer daughter, Terry, who in turn was the guest of the Norwegian Hurtigruten line as its M.S. Fram sailed from just west of Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, to points northward along the south and central west coast.

One’s first trip to Greenland — and, let’s be up front about this, almost surely my only trip — need not have been this perfect to have lit what certainly will be a lifetime of fond memories.

But for me, at least, it was. Was perfect, that is. All that and more.

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Spending a full seven sunlit days above the Arctic Circle on the Fram, and stopping and visiting a half-dozen coastal communities along the way, was a great personal introduction to this forbidding and remote, but at the same time welcoming, world’s largest island. Or, as some see it, the world’s smallest continent; the rhetorical battle goes on.

More icebergs than one could reasonably count, an ample supply of glaciers, and never-quite-enough humpback whales served as a perfect backdrop to each day’s new discoveries.

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If a picture is worth a thousand words around one’s usual haunts, how many words might a Greenland photo displace? With the Sun never falling below the horizon, it was easy, indeed almost mandatory, to be watching-out well into the wee hours as the camera’s eye never had time to rest.

One doesn’t go to Greenland, of course, and come back with no impressions of the impact of its changing climate. Our expedition was an early seasonal victim, perhaps, in that being surrounded virtually 360 by newly calved icebergs kept us from coming closer than five nautical miles to Ilulissat and its famed Sermeq Kujalleq glacier (known in Danish as Jacobshavn Isbrae), the most active in the Northern Hemisphere. That shortfall at first seemed a significant disappointment, but I rationalized it in my own mind by thinking of those scientists whose very real research expeditions surely had experienced much greater obstacles. And when the Fram‘s cooperative crew made especially available a nine-passenger “Arctic Cirkel” outboard and operator, we ended up just a tad more than arms-length from countless otherwise inaccessible icebergs.

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Visiting a succession of coastal settlements — Sisimiut, Assaqutaq, Qeqertarsiaq, Uummannaq, Ukkusissat, Eqip Sermia, Kangerlussuaq — with populations ranging from 1 to 5,000, we got a taste of the Greenlandic culture in the endless-daylight summer months. Brightly colored homes and community buildings flagged homes here, a community center there, a place of worship, a grocery and provisions store, a post office. All laid out against a tree-less and volcanic island background clearly lacking in greenery.

“Pay attention to Greenland.” The sentence keeps recurring in my mind and memory, for as goes Greenland and its ice sheet, so too may go many of the rest of us. For more on that point, see related posting on The Fate of Greenland: Lessons Learned from Abrupt Climate Change, written by two renowned climate scientists — Richard Alley from Penn State and Wally Broecker from Columbia — with University of Maine geologist George Denton and Philip Conkling, founder and president of the Island Institute of Maine.

The accompanying photos reveal some of the splendor of Greenland. A fuller collection, by the author and by professional Swedish photographer Daniel Ohlsson (images captioned “Greenland, Hurtigruten, June 2011)  is online. The Fate of Greenland book has its own extraordinary collection of Greenland photographs, most of them the work of the late Lands’ End founder, Gary Comer, who was instrumental in that work.

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After sampling some of those images, you just might find it a lot easier, in fact, to pay attention to Greenland. Close attention.

Greenland Facts

Population: 57,600 (July 2009 est.)

Capital: Nuuk (population 15,469 in January 2010, largest population center in Greenland)

Location: Northern North America, between Arctic Ocean and North Atlantic Ocean, northeast of Canada

Economy: Highly dependent on support from Denmark; exports of fish, whaling, textiles; chronically high unemployment rates; small population settlements dependent on subsistence fishing and hunting.

Size: 1,000 miles from north to south (Washington, D.C.-Miami, Fl.) and 600 miles east to west

Ice Sheet: 81 percent ice-capped and ice covers 90 percent of land. Largest ice sheet in Northern Hemisphere, representing 10 percent of all the world’s ice. Scientists calculate that melting of Greenland ice sheet would raise global sea level seven meters, about 24 feet.

Settlement: Norse settled and occupied from late 980s to roughly 1410, corresponding with the Medieval Warm Period

Check out the full photo gallery.

Posted by Bud Ward on Friday, 9 September, 2011

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