The gargantuan chunks of ice breaking off the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier and thundering into an Arctic fjord make a spectacular sight. But to Greenlanders it is also deeply worrisome.
The frequency and size of the icefalls are a powerful reminder that the frozen sheet covering the world’s largest island is thinning — a glaring sign of global warming, many scientists say.
“In the past we could walk on the ice in the fjord between the icebergs for a six-month period during the winter, drill holes and fish,” said Joern Kristensen, a fisherman and one of the indigenous Inuit who are most of Greenland’s population of 56,000.
“We can only do that for a month or two now. It has become more difficult to drive dog sleds because the ice between the icebergs isn’t solid anymore.”
In 2002-2003, a six-mile-long stretch of the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier broke off and drifted silently out of the fjord near Ilulissat, Greenland’s third largest town, 155 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Although Greenland, three times the size of Texas, is the prime example, scientists say the effects of climate change are noticeable throughout the Arctic region, from the northward spread of spruce beetles in Canada to melting permafrost in Alaska and northern Russia.
Indigenous people, who for centuries have adapted their lives to the cold, fear that even small and gradual changes could have a profound impact.
“We can see a trend that the fall is getting longer and wetter,” said Lars-Anders Baer, a political leader of Sweden’s Sami, a once nomadic, reindeer-herding people.
“If the climate gets warmer, it is probably bad for the reindeer. New species (of plants) come in and suffocate other plants that are the main food for the reindeer,” he said.
New fish species
Rising temperatures are also a concern in the Yamalo-Nenets region in Western Siberia, said Alexandr Navyukhov, 49. He is an ethnic Nenet, a group that lives mostly off hunting, fishing and deer-breeding.
“We now have bream in our river, which we didn’t have in the past because that fish is typical of warmer regions,” he said. “On the one hand it may look like good news, but bream are predatory fish that prey upon fish eggs, often of rare kinds of fish.”
Melting permafrost has damaged hundreds of buildings, railway lines, airport runways and gas pipelines in Russia, according to the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment commissioned by the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body.
Research also shows that populations of turbot, Atlantic cod and snow crab are no longer found in some parts of the Bering Sea, an important fishing zone between Alaska and Russia, and that flooding along the Lena River, one of Siberia’s biggest, has increased with warming temperatures.
In Greenland, Anthon Utuaq, a 68-year-old retired hunter, worries that a warmer climate will make it harder for his son to continue the family trade.
“Maybe it will be difficult for him to find the seals,” Utuaq said, resting on a bench in the east coast town of Kulusuk. “They will head north to colder places if it gets warmer.”
Arctic sea ice has decreased by about 8 percent, or more than 380,000 square miles, over the past 30 years.
In Sisimiut, Greenland’s second largest town, lakes have doubled in size in the last decade.
“Greenland was perceived as this huge solid place that would never melt,” said Robert Corell of the American Meteorological Society, a Boston-based scientific organization. “The evidence is now so strong that the scientific community is convinced that global warming is the cause.”
How much of it is natural and how much is caused by humans burning fossil fuels is sharply debated. Greenland itself endured sharp climate shifts long before fossil fuels were an issue, and sustained Norse settlements for 400 years until the 15th century.
“We know that temperatures have gone up and it’s partly caused by man. But let’s hold our horses because it’s not everywhere that the ice is melting. In the Antarctic, only 1 percent is melting,” said Bjoern Lomborg, a Danish researcher and prominent naysayer on the magnitude of the global-warming threat.
What is clear is that the average ocean temperature off Greenland’s west coast has risen in recent years — from 38.3 degrees Fahrenheit to 40.6 F — and glaciers have begun to retreat, said Carl Egede Boeggild, a glaciologist with the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, a government agency.
The Sermilik glacier in southern Greenland has retreated nearly seven miles, and the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier near Ilulissat is also shrinking, said Henrik Hoejmark Thomsen of the geological survey.
In 1967, satellite imagery measured it moving 4.3 miles per year. In 2003, the rate was 8.1 miles.
“What exactly happened, we don’t know. But it appears to be the effect of climate change,” said Hoejmark Thomsen.
In August, the National Science Foundation’s Arctic System Science Committee issued a report saying the rate of ice melting in the Arctic is increasing and within a century could for the first time lead to summertime ice-free ocean conditions.
With warmer temperatures, some bacteria, plants and animals could disappear, while others will thrive. Polar bears and other animals that depend on sea ice to breed and forage are at risk, scientists say, and some species could face extinction in a few decades.
The thinning of the sea ice presents a danger to both humans and polar bears, said Peter Ewins, director of Arctic conservation for the World Wildlife Fund Canada.
“The polar bears need to be there to catch enough seals to see them through the summer in open warm water systems. Equally, the Inuit need to be out there on the ice catching seals and are less and less able to do that because the ice is more unstable, thinner,” he said.
When NASA started taking satellite images of the Arctic region in the late 1970s and computer technology improved, scientists noted alarming patterns and theorized that the culprit was gases emitted by industries and internal combustion engines to create a “greenhouse effect” of trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Politics of climate change
Inuit leaders are trying to draw attention to the impact of climate change and pollution.
“When I was a child, the weather used to be more stable. It worries me to see and hear all this,” Greenland Premier Hans Enoksen said on the sidelines of a meeting of environmental officials from 23 countries in Ilulissat. The meeting ended with statements of concern — and no action.
The Kyoto Protocol that took effect in February aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the 140 nations that have signed the pact don’t include the United States, which produces one-quarter of the gases.
The Bush administration says participation would severely damage the U.S. economy. Many scientists say that position undermines the whole planet and they point to Greenland as the leading edge of what the globe could suffer.
“Greenland is the canary in a mine shaft alerting us,” said Corell, the American meteorologist, standing on the edge of the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier which he is studying. “In the U.S., global warming is a tomorrow issue. ... For us working here, it hits you like a ton of bricks when you see it.”