Greenland: Frontier of climate change

In the name of conservation, a team of Australian explorers captures the transient and beguiling beauty of East Greenland.
By Dean Miller November 18, 2015 Reading Time: 8 Minutes

IT’S 2AM BUT as bright as day outside. I lie awake in our tent while my companion, Aaron Jamieson, snores in his sleeping-bag beside me.

One of us needs to stay alert; we are camped at the edge of the frozen Hurry Fjord, in East Greenland, and I can hear ice cracking on the tideline as the sea heaves sluggishly beneath it. Polar bears frequent this area and my brain interprets the sound as the approach of these hungry Arctic predators. A loaded rifle lies in easy reach beside me.

You rarely consider being eaten alive when you go camping in arid outback Australia, other than by mosquitoes, but here it is possible. If you agonise over this and every other danger found here, you could drive yourself crazy. I’ve found it’s best to put it to the back of my mind, but remain wary.

Aaron and I are at the border of 972,000sq.km Northeast Greenland National Park, the world’s largest protected area, on a two-month expedition to explore and document the landscape and animals and people that call it home. Greenland has received international attention of late, especially in climate science circles, because it is changing rapidly.

If you want to fully understand environmental change, you have to see it for yourself. Only then can you begin to appreciate the intricacies and urgency of protecting such complex and finely balanced ecosystems. But not everybody has the opportunity to visit some of the more remote and inhospitable places on our planet. That is why I started Adventure For Change, an AG Society-sponsored project aimed at showcasing environments affected by climate change, and the work people are doing to protect them.

Our Adventure For Change crew – a trio of scientists, filmmakers and photographers – is on a mission to collect stories, images and footage of fragile ecosystems and to broadcast them via blogs and social media. We are set up so we can communicate with Australian schoolchildren, who are able to follow our progress in real-time, ask us questions and receive answers and regular updates from Jenna Rumney, the other member of our team.

We want to share our experiences in the name of conservation and where better to start than Greenland, a truly remote wilderness facing a very uncertain future?

Embarking on an Arctic expedition

In an attempt to see as much as possible during our time within the Arctic Circle – we are exploring latitudes of 70 degrees N and above – we have to push the boundaries of travel. In just eight weeks, we will journey by land, sea and air over more than 5000km of terrain, and we will see more of East Greenland than we could possibly have imagined.

Embarking on an expedition to the Arctic is like heading out to sea; once you leave the safety of home, you are on your own. Greenland, technically part of Denmark, is a vast, frozen landmass. More than 2 million sq.km in area, it is almost as large as WA. Despite its size, only 57,000 people call it home and far fewer live on the east coast than the west.

When venturing into the remote and largely untouched landscape, meticulous planning and preparation are vital and no detail can be overlooked.

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At -30 degrees C, misplacing an item as small as a lighter can have dire consequences, because if you can’t light a stove, you can’t melt snow for water. There is no room for complacency, which is why we are travelling with Paul Walker, a British adventurer, mountaineer, and 25-year veteran of Greenland exploration. Up here, Paul is an unofficial authority on expeditions. If something goes wrong, people initiate a rescue, contact the police, and then call Paul to make sure the first two do their job. He is a good man to have around in a tight spot.

Paul has built his own Arctic base – a feat usually accomplished only by nations with large budgets – at Constable Point, just south of the national park. From here, he organises logistics for explorers who are launching expeditions in the region. Historically, Twin Otter aircraft and helicopters carried mountaineers and explorers into the Greenland wilderness, but, because of rising fuel prices, Paul now provides snowmobiles as an alternative.

With these vehicles, much larger loads and greater numbers of people can travel to places of which explorers would once have only dreamt. To enable the first Adventure For Change expedition to take place, Paul has invited us to join him for the season and provided us with our own snowmobiles.

Surviving the Arctic

From the base, we launch a series of mini expeditions, each travelling slightly further than the last. At first, we test the snowmobiles and snow conditions. The winter just gone was unseasonally warm and very little ice remains on the ground. Strong winds have transformed what’s left into wave-like ridges, or sastrugi. Although this will make exploration into the mountain regions more difficult, the frozen Hurry Fjord on our doorstep is safe and secure and will become our primary highway for access to the north, south, east and west.

Once we are sure that a route is possible, we go back to base to prepare for longer journeys. Our larger sledges are packed with all manner of survival items, from tents and food to bear-protection gear, which includes rifles, flares, pepper spray and perimeter fences. The last thing we want to do, however, is injure or kill a bear, so we are extremely careful about where we venture and camp.

Fuel for the snowmobiles is our most limiting factor and we must deposit stores of it further afield each trip. With four snowmobiles, each towing a sled holding our gear, we look like a very out-of-place gypsy train as we snake our way across the frozen tundra.

Single file is the only way to travel in the Arctic: if the first snowmobile finds itself in deep powder snow or, worse, slush ice, it is less likely the other three will follow suit.

To survey the numbers of polar bears, walruses and seals, we push east through huge valleys surrounded by sheer rock faces and mountain peaks until we reach the coast. Here, the sea ice is jumbled and irregular, broken up by a massive storm, and forms an impenetrable barrier between us and our destination, the north-eastern coast.

Despite all our efforts we cannot see a way through and there are no visible traces of animal life nearby, other than some polar bear prints. Our 200km-return exploration has been fruitless so we decide to return to base to prepare for a second assault.

Glaciers in Greenland: beauty and decline

Next, we head 100km north along the frozen Carlsberg Fjord, which leads us to the tip of Liverpool Land. In this remote corner of Greenland we see beautiful glacier fronts and glimpse the Istorvet Ice Cap for the first time. The Istorvet is relatively small compared with the Greenland Ice Sheet – the second-largest ice cap after the Antarctic – but it is an isolated ice mass that may be more sensitive to climate change than larger ice sheets.

With splitboards (snowboards that can be separated quickly and easily into two ski-like parts), we ascend to the glacier’s edge and climb onto the ice cap. While we are there it begins to snow, and ice crystals – each perfectly symmetrical and unique – fall delicately on my gloves and the ice cap below. 

It is hard to believe that each tiny crystal falls, aggregates with others and is squashed and squeezed under immense pressures and forces to become part of an ice cap advancing and retreating on a time scale beyond human imagining. Eventually gravity will play its part and the crystal will be carried out to sea with billions of others as part of an iceberg, calved by the glacier’s face, which will drift off to melt slowly into an ocean far from here.

This process is being intensely scrutinised, as scientists become increasingly concerned by how fast the Greenland Ice Sheet is melting. Although I have only been here a few weeks, I feel the urgency of the situation. As I look at my surroundings from the Istorvet, I wonder how much longer the landscape will remain like this.

If I return in five or 10 years, will I be shocked at what I find? Paul tells me he has noticed drastic changes over the past 25 years and the winter just past has been one of the worst for snowfall he has seen. He, too, looks concerned.

To the west lies Jameson Land, a series of enormous valleys stretching 100km. We plan to travel along them, between crumbling mountain ranges, until we reach Renland, which comprises much more challenging mountains. This is the furthest we will venture from our base and it takes weeks to establish a reliable and safe route and to deposit enough fuel to carry us there and back.

Everything we have learnt will come into play for this expedition. As we prepare, our mood is one of excitement and trepidation. We are well aware of how far we will be from safety; the expedition will involve a 500km round trip. Despite the inherent dangers, the opportunity to visit a part of Greenland that so few people have seen is irresistible.

And it certainly doesn’t disappoint. The mountains are more impressive, the glaciers fall from greater heights and are more immense in every way, and the sense of remoteness is all-consuming. It is the type of Arctic exploration I have been chasing.

Greenland and climate change

But our exploration south surprises me the most and steals my heart. The mighty Scoresby Sound is the largest and longest fjord system in the world. It covers more than 38,000sq.km – larger than half the size of Tasmania – its longest branch extends 350km inland, it is about 50km across at its widest point and its water depth is 600-1500m. The marine life changes with the seasons – from whales and seals to countless fish species, the Greenland shark and, of course, the elusive polar bear.

The quaint little village of Ittoqqortoormiit (pronounced E-tok-or-tor-mit), the most northerly settlement in East Greenland, is at the mouth of Scoresby Sound. Its 472 residents live on the very edge of human existence, the rest of the human population settled to their south.

The people are extremely welcoming, happy and brave, for they live in an environment in which most of us would simply not survive for longer than a few weeks. Temperatures plummet to -50C and lower in winter, treacherous storms are not uncommon and the landscape is blanketed in darkness for months at a time. But the community is resilient and resourceful. Dog sleds are still the main forms of transport and polar bears, seals, whales and musk oxen are still hunted, eaten and used for needs such as clothing and building materials.

During our visit to the village we see many bearskins hanging out to dry. The locals are permitted to take 35 bears in total each season. Although the rest of the world regards polar bears as icons of Arctic conservation, in Ittoqqortoormiit hunting them is a part of everyday life; the animal is a threat to the community’s survival, yet at the same time, crucial to it.

We have been in Greenland for seven weeks by the time we arrive in Ittoqqortoormiit and until now have seen no evidence of polar bears other than occasional footprints. The bears are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and research suggests that they are being forced onto the land, because of diminishing sea ice. This increases the likelihood they will approach human population centres, where they are rarely welcome.

As I examine a bearskin up close, the hunter who killed it tells me that more and more polar bears are seen here by villagers every year. Although it might seem to locals that the population is increasing, there is no doubt numbers are in decline.

The villagers are well aware their frozen landscape is changing. “Never before in the history of my people have these mountain peaks been seen,” says Karl Emil, a young man who has spent his entire life in the village, as he points to the peaks around us.

“The seasons are shifting and the winters are shorter and bring less snow; The sea ice breaks out and forms at different times from before and the animals are changing their ways.”

We have discovered much more on our expedition than we ever expected. More than any other place I have visited, East Greenland is made up of fragile and delicate ecosystems that depend on the rhythms and consistency of the seasons. A fine line exists between snowfall and melt, between advancing and retreating glaciers.

East Greenland is a place of extremes in every sense of the word and at no point have I felt entirely welcome in its landscape. It’s hard to imagine anyone could leave here without a new perspective on life and the future of our planet. With any luck, this vast, wild land’s resilience will prevail and its unrelenting beauty will escape exploitation.