State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


An Icy Irony in Greenland

A minitoq (large iceberg) previously on the waterfront of Upernavik (M. Turrin)

The sounds from icebergs are constant—a bit of groaning as the waves shift the ice, and then a sharp popping like gunfire as the ice fractures, beginning its weakening. Calving is punctuated by a dramatic cannon-like sound as large slabs of ice break off and fall into the water. Waves ripple out immediately.

Greenland map with a small cut out of the area of the current large iceberg.

We awoke to messages from our polar field contact that a towering iceberg is threatening the local waterfront settlement of Innaarsuit. Located low on the rocky coastline along the Upernavik region of western Greenland (see inset map) the dangers facing this area are very real and have sparked concern of a tsunami should the iceberg calve. Calving icebergs are a constant threat to the coastal residents of Greenland as most make their living on the water. This iceberg is large and has hit a small shallowing of the water where it has grounded, or wedged itself, so it stays looming its threat.

Many of the icebergs along the Greenland waterfront are quite substantial in size and if they become grounded they become a major concern to the small waterfront communities. This one was in Kullorsuaq just north of Innaarsuit. (M. Turrin)

Icebergs are deceptively beautiful. From a distance they can captivate you with their glistening whites and blues, but they have a more sinister side as any native Greenlander can tell you. In an earlier trip on this coastline I recall being struck by the shear number of stories we heard from the locals of family members lost when a iceberg unexpectedly calved, sending out large waves of water capsizing their small fishing boats.

FIshermen work along the waterfront in Unpernavik darting in and around icebergs. (M. Turrin)

The first time we worked on the waterfront in Greenland, the dangers of large icebergs, or minitoq, was a daily part of our discussion. The small fishing boats gave them wide berth as they traveled along the waterfront. But this iceberg is different, as its size and location have placed not just a single boat, but the whole waterfront region on alert from any potential calving event. The whole settlement is sitting in waiting, watching to see what the ice will do.

Homes perched right along the waterfront in Greenland as icebergs move by from outlet glaciers. (M. Turrin)

There is perhaps a bit of irony in the fact that a massive looming block of ice is holding a potential threat to the start of our Greenland field season. Although the area is not close to our field sites, Greenland has declared an emergency and the Sikorsky helicopter designated for our field deployment has been relocated closer to Innaarsuit in case there is a need for evacuation. Polar Services is working on a back-up plan for our needs, something they have lots of experience with, and we feel certain a resolution will come our way.

Sikorsky helicopters are vaued for their large capacity by both science field teams and Greenland emergency services. (M. Turrin)

Our hope for Innaarsuit is that the iceberg will break free from its current location and drift away from the coastline.

For more on the Snow On Ice project please check the website.

Snow on Ice is an NSF-funded project that is multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary. It brings together work on lake sediment cores, exposure dating of the rock, ice core data, leaf wax and water samples and sea ice history to feed new data into both regional and wider Arctic models of ice sheet history.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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