State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Greenland’s ‘Big Three’ Glaciers

Helheim Glacier on the east coast of Greenland (image by Indrani Das)
Helheim Glacier on the east coast of Greenland (image by Indrani Das)

Today’s flight had to be carefully planned in order to avoid the volcanic ash plume still drifting  from  Iceland, so we flew to the east coast of Greenland to survey the Helheim glacier first. Glaciologists refer to Helheim glacier as one of ‘The big three’ in Greenland. The ‘big three’ (Helheim, Jakobshavn/Ilulissat and Kangerdlussuaq) are among the largest outlet glaciers in Greenland, and in recent years all are experiencing great change, having sped up significantly and lost mass at a tremendous rate. Scientists think these glaciers are accelerating and changing as a result of the warming climate. A warmer climate causes more snow melt, and as more water becomes available it is funneled down to the bed of the glacier through vents or tubular chutes/holes called moulins. This melt water delivered to the base of the glacier lubricates the bed making the glacier move faster – as fast as 12-14 km/yr.

As I took pictures of Helheim’s calving ice front, the crew on the aircraft watched to see if the glacier would ‘calve an iceberg’. A calving iceberg refers to the breaking off of chunks of ice from the front of the glacier, which then collapse into the sea. This collapse is often associated with a booming sound. Sometimes the chunks of ice are so big that when they break and roll over they are able to move the entire mélange of snow, marine ice, and ice talus in the calving front by a few meters -pushing the glacial material in front  like a bulldozer.  Much as we all hope the gaciers will slow their steady advance  is non-relenting. Below is a picture of the Helheim calving front that I took from onboard the P3 today .

Helheim glacier's calving front (image by Indrani Das)
Helheim glacier’s calving front (image by Indrani Das)

We also flew over Kangerdlussuaq, another of Greenand’s ‘big three’. This beautiful glacier is accelerating at approximately 14 km/yr and thinning rapidly. Below is a picture of Kangerdlussuaq I captured from the P3.

Kangerdlussuaq glacier is accelerating at a rate of 14 km/yr (image by Indrani Das)
Kangerdlussuaq glacier is accelerating at a rate of 14 km/yr (image by Indrani Das)

As beautiful as these glaciers are,  flying over them is not easy. It’s usually a very bumpy ride as pilots try to stick to the lines flown previously.  This is especially important for detecting glacier elevation changes. I have flown over glaciers in a Cessna and single otter as well and although I am always drawn by these mountains and glaciers, none of these flights has ever been easy for me.

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14 years ago

[…] Greenland’s ‘Big Three’ Glaciers […]

Mannil Mohan
Mannil Mohan
11 years ago

Hello Indrani,

I read with delight your description of the Greenland glaciers. I understand you are having an adventurous life there.Very very glad and proud to know you are making important contributions to climate change studies.

You know, I retired about an year back. Now I am working in a college at my place.

Hope you are doing well.

Mannil Mohan