Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Exploring Greenland, the blankest spot on the map — and not a moment too soon

DREAMING GREENLAND STARTED MY traveling life. Every day in fourth grade, I'd finish my assignments early, then go stare at the wall map, tracing the path of my imagination. In that Mercator distortion, Greenland loomed over the rest of the world, tumbling down the North Atlantic like the Blob eating the diner right before Steve McQueen saved the day.

Over the years, I've stood on maybe 50 glaciers, spent every minute possible in the Arctic, yet I've never been where everything I could see was frozen.

But here on Greenland's ice cap, the ice rolls like a snapshot of rapids, a moment of turbulence caught in a thousand shades of blue. Slipping backward on an uphill, trying to remember skiing reflexes on the down side of a frozen wave, I move past two abandoned snowmobiles, cross a narrow melt stream, and head into the white.

Thirty-five years I've waited for this. I almost waited too long, because the locus of my childhood dreams is melting. The warming that elsewhere is a slow tick of the clock is a pounding heartbeat here, speeding up day by day.

EVERYBODY IMAGINES GREENLAND, says William T. Vollmann in The Ice-Shirt, his retelling of the Norse sagas. But I had never imagined walking off the airplane in Kangerlussuaq, an old U.S. air base that's now a small town with the island's best runway, behind a girl talking on a cell phone, teetering down the stairs on spike heels and wearing a backless T-shirt, her blue bra a horizon line across her back.

Think of this largest island on Earth as ultima Thule, the place Pliny the Elder named "the most remote of all lands recorded," and which inspired writers and dreamers for centuries. They knew it was there, but not quite where it was or what it might be like. In Thule, said the Greek explorer Pytheas, "there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jellyfish." Even with time and the shrinking world of exploration, it remained romantic and hazy. For Longfellow, ultima Thule was the place where "in thy harbors for a while/we lower our sails; a while we rest."

The white spot on that map I stared at all through fourth grade was big enough to hold any dream.

The white spot of Greenland is, in fact, an ice cap roughly the size of Iran and up to two miles thick. A perimeter ring of mountains separates the ice from the thin strip of coastal land where most of Greenland's 56,000 residents live; glaciers drool toward the ocean like the tongues of tired dogs. Intervillage transport is by boat, sledge, and a fleet of modern planes that are nonetheless frequently grounded by weather.

I'm from southeast Alaska and used to measuring the world by how long it takes to get somewhere in a boat, so I've chosen to sec what I can from the water, sailing eight days up the west coast from Kangerlussuaq to the north edge of Disko Bay, and then back south. Except for a few hours on the first and last day, the entire trip will be above the Arctic Circle.

But from where I stand at Kangerlussuaq's tiny harbor — a skiff returning from a hunting trip with reindeer hooves sticking above the gunwales, the Norwegian Coastal Voyages ship I'm about to board floating slow circles around its anchor in the fjord — I can't see any ice at all. The air is humid and thick, the land perfectly brown. Close up, the tundra is composed of bitter crow berries, white lichen, and saxifrage, punctuated by purple Lapland rosebay. Mountains rise behind a shop with a huge sign that reads "Musk Ox Rent and Sale."

The locked doors mean I'm never going to find out how much it costs to rent a musk ox.

WE SAIL FAST the Arctic Circle sometime in the middle of the night, in full sunshine. The Vikings threw images of their household gods off longboats along this western coast, building settlements, the sagas say, where the small wooden statues drifted ashore. This also used to be the whalers' highway, back when oil lamps held winter at bay in London. Disko Island — Qeqertarsuaq in Greenlandic, the world's largest island's largest island — was the jumping-off point for the search for the Northwest Passage. It is huge and sere, with dark mountains as jagged and oddly shaped as the icebergs jamming the harbor of Ilulissat, Greenland's third-largest town, midway up Disko Bay. The glacier here, Jakobshavn, has retreated at least nine miles since the 1920s; the past two years alone have brought more melt than the previous ten. According to a caption on the best map I could find (although it's full of blank spots, and few of the town names match what places are commonly called, which makes me think cartographers are still imagining ultima Thule), the nearby Sermeq Kujalleq Glacier is moving at a rate of almost four feet an hour, calving enough ice each summer day to supply New York City with freshwater for two years.

Elke Meissner has lived in Ilulissat for three decades. "The fishermen are glad," she says, "because they can fish year-round. But farther north, it's a problem for the hunters and for the polar bears. The sea ice is getting thinner."

Everywhere I look in this blue and white glare are broken bergs, floes, bergy bits, grinders, and growlers. The Arctic explorers had endless names for ice. What else was there to do over winter, when it was too dark to remember the faces of home? But this isn't new ice I'm looking at; it's centuries old, snapped from the glacier face. No sastrugi or hummocky floes, no pancake, brash, drift, or pack ice, not even the marvelously evocative fast ice that in normal conditions forms each winter. In fact, few of these names are needed anymore. "The bay hasn't frozen over in the last 10 or 12 years," Meissner says.

THE CRESCENT-MOON-SHAPED DISKO BAY will be the final destination of Greenland's ice cap, the Northern Hemisphere's biggest chunk of ice. "Greenland slants," points out Ulrich Dornsiepen, a geologist. "This is the low point, and this is where it will all go when it melts."

Around the time of the Civil War, the average global temperature was 56 degrees Fahrenheit. Today it's 57.8. Variations in Earth's temperature are governed by three main factors: the shape of the planet's orbit, the angle at which the planet faces the sun, and the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. The first two factors vary through natural cycles, but since the Industrial Revolution, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and global temperatures have spiked in close correlation. Since the 19th century, the amount of carbon in the air has increased — largely from burning forests and fossil fuels — from 274 parts per million to 380 ppm, which has thickened the atmosphere and trapped more heat. The greenhouse effect in a nutshell.

Recent studies show that the Greenlandic ice cap is melting not only on top but underneath as well, hurrying glaciers to the sea. Last year alone, Greenland lost as much as 52 cubic miles of ice, and the speed of the melt is increasing, in part because so much has already melted. Ice is an extremely efficient reflector, bouncing solar heat back into the atmosphere. The loss of ice exposes more and more rock, which holds more heat, which melts yet more ice. Should the ice cap melt completely, the world's oceans will rise six to seven meters. "You've seen the disaster in New Orleans?" asks Dornsiepen. "The same thing can happen to all big coastal cities."

Before Greenland melts entirely, however, an even bigger problem could arise. All that freshwater means a less-salty — and therefore lighter and warmer — ocean. Changing the temperature and salinity of the North Atlantic could alter the Gulf Stream, which functions as a giant conveyor belt: Cold heavy water from around Greenland sinks and cycles south, pushing water from the tropics north to warm Europe. With each drop of lightweight ice melt pouring off Greenland, that belt frays a little more. The last time it was disrupted, much of Europe was buried under glaciers a mile thick.

AN ICE BRIDGE BROUGHT THE FIRST PEOPLE to Greenland as far back as 2500 B.C., crossing by foot from Canada. There were a couple of false starts before the Thule culture, which appeared around 1100 A.D., got Arctic life right: whale and walrus hunting, snow houses, dogsleds. It lasted until Western contact in the 1500s. That contact — whalers and glorydrunk explorers, mostly — explains why traditional Greenlandic dances now tend to look like variations on the hornpipe and the jig.

At our first stop, in Sisimiut, I corner a schoolteacher. The town of 5,000 has number 8 and 9 buses — and apparently no others — and serious traffic problems around the open-air market, which features seal ribs on a steel table.

"In Alaska, we use the word Eskimo or Inupiat or Yup'ik; in Canada, limit. What's the term here?" I ask.

He looks at me like I'm slightly stupid. "Greenlander," he says.

When the Vikings showed up, they called the natives skraelings, from the Old Norse word for skin. (They made the same mistake generations of wool-clad European explorers would: sneering at the locals' sensible — and warm — fur and skin clothing.) Erik the Red, banished from Iceland in 982, named the place Greenland in a desperate, misleading attempt to get people to come with him, and the Norse gave it a shot for a couple of hundred years. Digging into the shallow topsoil, they grew a few grains and raised thin sheep. By the mid-1100s, the eastern settlement held upwards of 250 farms, even a cathedral. But in the end, the Vikings just never got the hang of the land. They never took up hunting or fishing (what kept the Greenlanders going, then and now) but stuck to farming, an economic model that didn't work because it had very little CO do with the environment. Adaptation was not a Viking virtue.

The vestern settlement was gone by 1300; the eastern settlement was empty a hundred years after that. The last written record was of a marriage. In the end, historians say, ice inexorably pushed the Vikings off the edge of the island. The end of Norse settlement coincides neatly with a peak in the Little Ice Age. Temperatures dropped, and the ice cap spread closer to the sea.

No longer able to farm, their sheep no longer able to fend off the cold, odds are that the Vikings simply packed up and sailed away. Falling out of history, they might have headed for the place they called Vinland, the shores of North America, where, the stories said, the sun was soft, the forests were thick, and grapes grew wild.

IT TAKES ABOUT 30 SECONDS to fall in love with Uummannaq, just northeast of Disko Island, the great mass of Greenland visible across a narrow fjord. A mountain locals say is shaped like a seal's heart shades women pushing babies in prams and teenagers going to church in traditional sealskin pants and kamiks — — boots trimmed with dog skin, high enough to tuck the hands in to keep warm. The houses are blood-red and yellow, pale green and dark blue. When the church bell tolls, every dog in town lets out a wolf howl.

I climb to the top street, sit on the steps of the school. In the water beyond, icebergs trolling the harbor crack and groan. Over on the mainland, bare mountains climb toward the unseen ice cap. The mountains are staying that way later and later into the winter as the snow level throughout Greenland rises. "The snowline should be at 600 meters here," Dornsiepen had told me, "but it's now at 1,000."

The mountain barrier separating the coast from the ice cap in this part of Greenland ranges from 1,800 meters to as little as 400 meters. Already, the lower edges of the vast plain of the ice cap have doubled their melt in just the past few years. What happens when the snowline climbs over the last mountain and the glacier no longer has new infusions of snow, even at high altitude? The glacier dies.

From behind his desk in the Uummannaq museum, curator Karl Peter presides over narwhal tusk walking sticks and polar bear pants. But in the past few years, he says, it's hardly been worth the effort to go hunting. The ice is gone, and the animals are migrating north, looking for a climate they understand.

Peter, who has lived all over Greenland, shakes his head. "It's bad," he says.

DENMARK ENDED UP with Greenland in a shuffle of Napoleonic War paperwork. In 1953, it was upgraded from a Danish colony to an increasingly autonomous province. Even so, about two-thirds of its economy today remains dole from Denmark.

People say that 10 or 20 years ago, Denmark was thoroughly resented. (A show of Greenlandic art in Copenhagen still features a straightjacket sewn from a Danish flag.) But now schools are taught in Greenlandic, Danes are only about 10 percent of the population, and Greenlanders who went away for higher education are coming back and taking over elite jobs.

"Within 15 years, we will be totally independent," says Jens Laursen, a government official in Kangerlussuaq. Home rule began in 1979; now only Justice, Defense, and Foreign Affairs are under Danish control — and Justice is scheduled to be handed over soon.

But the leases Greenland is selling for oil exploration around Disko Bay could change all that. Oil companies claim there could be as much as 10 billion barrels off Greenland's coast (roughly as much as is estimated to be in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge); others estimate a fifth as much. Even so, when I ask Laursen if he thinks the Danes will assert more sovereignty if oil production starts, he just chokes out a laugh and says, "They'll try. Of course."

I imagine huge chunks of melting glacier, icebergs the size of shopping malls, knocking over shiny new oil rigs in a perfect demonstration of greenhouse cause and effect.

ON THE FOURTH DAY, our boat reaches its northernmost point, the tiny village of Ukkusissat (71 degrees, 3 minutes north), a place my map forgot, in full summer sunshine.

The whole village comes out to watch us watch them. Houses perch on bare rocks; tangles of puppies sleep in the sun. A dog that has gotten loose digs at a seal carcass on the beach.

In winter, people used to be able to drive the 60 miles or so between here and Uummannaq across the frozen ocean, but "the past few years, there hasn't been much sea ice," says teacher Maryanne Pedersen, who has coaxed a village elder into full traditional winter clothing. While the rest of us wear T-shirts and swat mosquitoes, the poor lady looks like she's about to keel over from the heat in her dog and seal skins.

When the ship starts moving again, I face backward, wanting to have the north all to myself. No matter how much I imagined it over the years, I never pictured the true stark beauty of this place: the are of humpback whales or the goggle eyes of seals surfacing for no more than a blink.

That evening I go for a walk with my friend Sabine, who writes German-language guidebooks to Greenland, to look at the face of Eqip Sermia Glacier. I ask her how this place ended up in her imagination, what has brought her back again and again. "I need the icebergs," she says, while an arctic fox, its summer brown fur starting to molt into winter white, stares from behind a clump of white flowers. "The ocean, the wide-open horizons. I need the light."

I think about a line from Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, a book that's been practically a bible to me: "In a simple bow from the waist before the nest of the horned lark, you are able to stake your life, again, in what you dream."

Lacking a lark, I bow to the fox.

IN ITILLEQ, just a few yards above the Arctic Circle and our last stop before returning to Kangerlussuaq, no one is moving. Three dozen houses, green and red and blue, fill a saddle between two small hills. A lone pink house sits off by itself, with a view of gulls and rocks and flat water picking up reflections from the bare rock hills beyond.

The town has no roads, but a single path branches at the well-used soccer field, where the ship's crew and passengers will lose a game against the locals, who field up to 20 players and three balls at a time. (Bank shots off rocks and buildings are apparently quite legal.) The path to the left runs past the house where a musk ox head mummifies on a porch rail. The right fork winds to a graveyard of plastic flowers behind a prim white fence. Above, rocks covered with orange lichen are squeezed by arctic blueberries the color of a landscape halfway to night.

Reindeer skins dry by a small pond, just out of reach of the sled dogs. The dogs are white and thick furred, the size of healthy wolves. Greenlandic law allows no pet dogs north of the Arctic Circle, just these massive beasts that eat only twice a week this time of year, a couple of pounds of raw fish scrap. Even bored and hungry, they never stretch their tethers to snap at the puppies that stop wrestling just long enough to offer their necks to me for a scratch.

Fishermen in Greenland carry not only hooks and line but also three guns: something small for birds, a .22 or a .222 for seals ("You can also use that for reindeer, but you have to be a very good shot," a hunter tells me), and a 30.06 for musk oxen.

Weather teaches improvisation and adaptability, skills the industrial age has largely abandoned in a belief that technology can conquer any obstacle. But walk through backcountry Greenland, notice the abandoned snow machines, and you understand why locals stick to dog sledges: Dogs don't break down, can find their way home through a storm, and don't need oil. When the time comes, dogs can even pull the jawbone-shaped sledges across a snowless landscape.

The Vikings never figured out improvisation, and it doomed them. But, as they're already doing, the Grecnlanders will fish when they can't hunt. And then I have to believe they'll farm. And then they'll figure out something else, because weather and need have taught them to be brilliant improvisers, skinning musk oxen under satellite dishes.

UP ON THE ICE CAP, I pull a pebble from a rivulet of melting water and drop it in my pocket as a present for the woman I love.

Five hundred years ago, the glaciers moved down to the coast and pushed the Norse into the sea. Perhaps without so much as a look back at the way glowing blue icebergs ate all but one end of the spectrum, they set sail for Vinland, a place where they imagined life would be sweet and the temperature always perfect.

Now the massive Greenlandic ice cap is melting. Changes here will be felt across the globe, and, as my fingers numb in the melt stream, I can't help but think we face a simple choice. We can decide to change, to prevent the teetering climate from becoming completely unbalanced, get the carbon out of the air, and keep the temperature stable. Or we can keep warming the planet and find out just how adaptable we and other life forms really are.

I stand and look at nothing but ice, a view the Vikings must have known. But they had an escape route; we have nowhere to sail away to. There's no Vinland for us.

The air is humid and thick, the land perfectly brown. The locus of my childhood dreams is melting.

The Thule culture got Arctic life right: whale and walrus hunting, snow houses, dogsleds.

We can decide to change, get the carbon out of the air, and keep the temperature stable. Or we can find out just how adaptable we are.

By Edward Readicker-Henderson


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