Visit Greenland to witness global warming in action

Image courtesy: ©HenrikAMeyer/Getty Images

In the far north of this world lies the mega ice cap of Greenland. The ice cap is 2nd in size only to Antarctica at the southern end of the planet. Greenland is the symbol of both the Arctic and, in the recent past, of climate change as huge chunks of ice from ancient glaciers are rapidly melting in this frozen world.

If you want to witness climate change or global warming in action, then Greenland is the place to visit, particularly its western coast, next to the small town of Ilulissat, which has the largest glacier of the Northern Hemisphere spewing massive icebergs into the sea. Ilulissat can be reached by a short flight from the relatively bigger hub of Kangerlussuaq which is connected with Copenhagen, Denmark via Air Greenland.

But before reaching Greenland, a background on the science of the present day climate change.

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Climate Change & Global Warming

It’s been calculated that if all the ice in Greenland melts, it can potentially add 25 feet to global sea levels (scientist expect 2-3 feet rise by year 2100). Currently over 130 coastal cities, 50 million people and trillions of dollars of assets are at risk besides the change in our planet’s eco-system itself, on which we and all other living creatures depend.

 

Stay in the small town of Ilulissat in Western Greenland
Stay in the small town of Ilulissat in Western Greenland
Image courtesy: ©Nitin Gairola

Several questions arise in this regard, such as- is climate change or in particular global warming even real or is it just the latest pseudo-intellectual fad of the new generation? No more than a debate between environment idealists and politicians/business houses? How does the everyday person know fact from fiction and truth from propaganda? And should we care at all?

To answer these questions, it’s now accepted among almost all prominent scientist that global warming is in fact real. It’s most profound potential impact areas are the 2 polar ice caps (Greenland in the north and West Antarctica peninsula in the south) since they hold majority of the fresh water stored as ice. Post multiple actual measurements over the past 70 odd years, it’s been found that majority of the glaciers have either receded or have completely vanished and only a minority have retained their size or in the rarest of cases, expanded.

For the last 400,000 years till the start of the industrial age, less than 200 years ago, the carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere have been in a cyclical range 180-280 parts per million (ppm), as shown in global research data. By the 1950’s it had risen to 300 ppm and by the turn of the millennium it was 380. Just 19 years later, in April 2019 it’s 411 ppm. That’s a 46% increase over the historic upper range (280) of the last 400,000 years of Earth’s history, most of it without mankind. No one knows exactly how the planet will respond to such never seen before carbon levels, but one thing is certain – Carbon levels, global temperatures and global sea levels move in tandem.

How does it work?

See Global Warming in Action - Massive calving taking place at the Eqi Glacier
See Global Warming in Action - Massive calving taking place at the Eqi Glacier
Image courtesy: ©Nitin Gairola

With the increase in global temperatures, Earth can go into an irreversible automatic feedback loop of warming leading to further warming even if humans change their ways later i.e. we can reach a point of no return. This is how global warming works:

1- Burning of fossil fuels for running industries, coal plants, vehicles, airplanes, etc. releases CO2 in the atmosphere. Also the domesticated animals which are kept in factory farms for meat consumption release large amounts of methane. This is besides our culling down of ancient forests for producing cash crops, buying farm lands, making highways, industries and residences (such as the ongoing mass cutting and incineration of trees in the Amazon or in Indonesia for palm oil plantations). These forests, or the lungs of the planet as they are called, have the capacity to absorb massive amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. Hence we add to carbon sources (fossil fuels) and remove our carbon sinks (forests).
2- Both carbon and methane are greenhouse gases i.e. they have the ability to trap heat better than other gases and if their proportion in the atmosphere increases beyond a limit, it will start to heat the planet.
3- The heating through more greenhouse gases in the air causes the global ice (both on the poles & mountains) to melt faster than normal during summers and recover to less than their normal winter volumes. Hence mountain glaciers recede over time and polar ones both recede and break off into the oceans & seas.
4- Snow and ice reflects back sun’s heat much more than water, which absorbs it better. Hence with less snow and ice and more water (relative for each season of a particular place), more sunlight is absorbed and the planet starts heating exponentially with ice loss outpacing the emission of greenhouse gases. Also if there is more water on the ice, it seeps into the bedrock causing a further breaking and lubrication of ice.

With melting causing more melting, these multiple and exponential feedback loops get locked in, which at a certain point will become irreversible, even if humans stop or reduce fossil fuel emissions and replace them with renewable clean energy options such as solar, wind, hydro, nuclear etc.

Icebergs, bigger than city blocks, break from the glacier during the summer melt
Icebergs, bigger than city blocks, break from the glacier during the summer melt
Image courtesy: ©Nitin Gairola

Should you care?

Millions of people, especially marginalized populations, in countries of the Indian sub-continent & South America depend on glacier water for drinking, irrigation and hydropower. A loss or unpredictability of it could lead to mass scale migrations and chaos. Low lying nations such as Bangladesh or the small island states such as Maldives among many others can have vast areas of their land lost to the rising seas. Populous cities such as Mumbai, Dhaka and Ho Chi Minh City have huge people risk and places such as Miami, New Jersey, Shanghai amongst others have asset risk. Climate Change will also bring with it unpredictability of weather such as out of season hurricanes, flash floods, droughts etc. for which humans and animals alike will be unprepared.

Hence climate change and environment is a matter of concern. Since there is no education like first-hand learning, a visit can be paid to Greenland by the dreamers of a better world. After all ‘seeing is believing’!

The sheer scale of Jakobshavn Glacier’s melting ice can be seen from the air
The sheer scale of Jakobshavn Glacier’s melting ice can be seen from the air
Image courtesy: ©Nitin Gairola

The logistics of a visit to Greenland

Visa & Flights:

Greenland is not your average everyday destination; hence the logistics are not straightforward. First you need a Schengen visa since regular flights are only from Copenhagen, Denmark. Because it is administered by Denmark, you need to apply for your Schengen visa from the Denmark Embassy only and inform them of your intent to visit Greenland. Then they would mention Greenland on the Schengen visa sticker and you would be good to go.

From Copenhagen, you can book Air Greenland flight to Ilulissat which will have a stop-over at Kangerlussuaq. The views of the Arctic Ice cap on the Copenhagen – Kangerlussuaq flight are breath-taking, so ensure a window seat for yourself that’s not on the wing. On your second flight, on a very small ATR plane from Kangerlussuq to Ilulissat, you will be treated to the best landing views on Earth (sit on the right side to see the melting glacier). The flights from Denmark can be very expensive, especially in the June-August season when melting of glaciers is at peak and you have 100% daylight in the land of the midnight sun. So, it is suggested to book at least 3-4 months in advance.

Adventures

The bright glow of the midnight sun.
The bright glow of the midnight sun.
Image courtesy: ©Nitin Gairola

Once in Ilulissat, you can opt to trek up close to the melting glaciers and icebergs, take the ‘midnight-sun’ boat rides, whale watching tours, scenic flights, helicopter rides and a guided trek on the Greenland ice cap itself. As you can guess, due to the exclusivity of this destination, a lot of these adventure tours are very expensive. Most of these, other than the ice cap trek, can be booked on arrival.
‘World of Greenland’ is the one major adventure tour company in Ilulissat. Greenland is the polar opposite of a budget destination but it will be worth every buck you spend. It is raw nature that is battling the impact of climate change. This is the place where you can wear your citizen-scientist hat and see and learn what you have, so far, read in books only.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Nitin Gairola is a writer, photographer, traveller & an enthusiast of the natural world. He has endless passion for learning about environmental conservation, wildlife biodiversity along with the history & cultures of people around the world and their present socio-economic situations. He has been to many parts of the Earth, covering the continents, polar caps, mountains, forests, grasslands, deserts and nearly a century of countries, in his personal quest to know more about the planet. More on: https://www.facebook.com/NitinGairolaPhotography/