Saturday, July 20, 2013

Greenland and climate change: trying to make sense ... by gimleteye

Ilulissat sits at the mouth of the largest of glaciers pouring to the sea on Greenland's west coast. Having written about climate change and the impacts of sea level rise and lived in places where the impacts are clearly visible, I had not expected to be so impressed and surprised by the scale of the Kangia glacier and its melting ice.

The beauty of the landscape would stand alone as remarkable, but the climate forces at work inspire awe.

Dick Cheney coined the phrase, 'shock and awe', to describe the effects of American military power in war. But to experience real shock and awe, there is nothing mankind can do -- except perhaps the detonation of  a nuclear bomb -- that compares to the Greenland ice sheet melting into the Atlantic.

The temperature here is in the 40's. It is a far from the blistering heat engulfing most of the US. Our flight be small plane from New England was long and tiring. If you could fly directly by commercial jet , Greenland is three and a half hours away from Boston. On a small plane, a Kodiak, it took us sixteen hours over two days. The duration of the trip has an unexpected benefit of reinforcing the sense of vast scale to the triggers unleashed by our use of fossil fuels. By stretching out the length of the trip, it is both easier to link how the melting ice -- gathered over hundreds of thousands of years -- is the consequence of unleashing the energy of plant life -- in fossil fuel -- created over hundreds of millions of years.

This is a perspective that is difficult to grasp except by imagining great spaces and great lengths of time in the evolution of our species: that we have become not only the agent for conversion of energy, as though we were the phosphorous on the tip of a match, but that the match that holds us intact -- the survivability of species -- can also go up in smoke. So this is the question I wonder about as the icebergs float by my hotel room in the constant summer sun that makes quarter of eleven at night nearly as bright as quarter of eleven in the morning; is there any chance that billions of people can survive on the tip of this burning match? The icebergs don't seem to move, but they are moving. It is not just that the temperatures are excruciatingly hot: the averages are moving, too. Everything is moving with the climate, that sends scientists running to the record stretching back hundreds of millions of years for equivalents. All our references are thrown out of whack by the immensity.

A guide reports, each day the volume of water in the ice breaking off the glacier equals the volume of water consumed by New York City in an entire year. Think about that.

Here is another, more easy to grasp image: for centuries, locals have depended on dog sledding to get to frozen fishing grounds in winter. Only a few years ago, there were 5000 registered dogs in Ilulissat. After several warm winters in a row allowed fishermen to get to fishing areas by boat, the number of dogs has fallen to 2300.

I had not expected to be floored by what I've seen in Greenland, but I am.


Anonymous said...

Have the scientists calculated a timetable for major impacts on us resulting from the melting process?

Anonymous said...

Please post more photos, and please provide some reference regarding scale. Thanks.

Sid said...

Ummmm ... change in global temperatures is an inevitable part of nature. The earth warms and cools through cycles. It's natural and there is nothing we can do to stop it.

Do you realize that Florida has been underwater for most of its history?

Do a little research. You will be amazed!