Greenland: Where Towering Icebergs Raise Sea Levels

Scientists and tourists visit a glacier threatened by global warming.

Sept. 9, 2007— -- Scientists packed the C-130 taking us to Greenland — the vast and wild land that now attracts ice experts from many countries to assess the danger of global warming.

The Jakobshavn glacier and ice fjord at Ilulissat, jammed with towering icebergs, are breathtaking to see, but scientists report they are now pouring out some 20 million tons of frozen water into the ocean every day.

It is helping to raise sea levels at a rate scientists say could devastate the homes and properties of hundreds of millions of people on the world's coastlines by mid-century.

As climate experts become more and more familiar here, some Greenlanders also hope that global warming will bring them a lot more tourists.

It's clearly beginning to, and one local tour guide and shop owner overflows with stories about global warming:

"I never seen, like now, the last six, seven years, the bay doesn't frozen no more. No more ice," Silverio Scivoli, owner of Tourist Nature, told us over a cup of hot tea in the back of his shop.

He showed us satellite photos depicting the long retreat of the Jakobshavn glacier, which has been pulling back since the industrial revolution accelerated the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.

"In 1850, the glacier was here. Now, we are down here," Scivoli said.

Now, the glacier is melting even faster. It has retreated nine miles in only the last five years.

An Italian couple visiting Ilulissat told us global warming spurred them to visit this remote land.

"We were afraid this could disappear in the next years, and so, we wanted to see it," Roberta Romagnolo told us, looking out over the iceberg-packed outlet of the Jakobshavn ice fjord.

Local fishermen in the Ilulissat harbor told us the icebergs coming down the fjord from the Jakobshavn glacier are not as huge as they used to be, and stream past much more quickly now.

It is anecdotal evidence that dovetails exactly with data compiled by scientists trying to understand the effect of global warming on Greenland's ice sheet.

We accompanied Romagnolo and four other European tourists paying $500 each for a spectacular helicopter ride up the ice fjord to a remote mountain peak where you can still see the fast-retreating face of the glacier.

In fact, all that's left of the Jakobshavn glacier — which was once a protruding "ice tongue" floating out into the ice fjord — is a retreating crescent, eating back up into the overall Greenland ice sheet.

But, to look at this retreating glacier face from a windy peak a few miles away, is to be overwhelmed by the bleak magnificence of the Greenland ice sheet — the only ice sheet in the northern hemisphere left over from the last ice age. It's so big, it generates its own super-cooled atmosphere.

That, and its location so far north, mean it simply never melted, even as the rest of North America reappeared after the ice age was done.

Next, we went where tourists can't go, and the plane needed skis.

Summit Camp is an outpost run by the National Science Foundation at the center of Greenland's ice sheet, which is two miles thick, meaning we landed 10,000 feet above sea level.

After you deplane, your taxi is a sled pulled by snowmobiles driven by cheerful and hardy (they have to be) scientists and their support staff.

The thin air makes you dizzy — ten minutes off the plane, you're already winded, and you quickly see the value of the advice given before take off: "Once you get to Summit Camp, force yourself to take it easy."

We had landed in a snow storm.

Scientists have predicted that global warming would produce more summer precipitation, which, at this elevation, is mostly snow, and it has.

To the surprise of scientists who did not expect it, there are now, for the first time, also reports of rain at the highest elevations on the ice sheet.

That worries scientists even more, because it means more water that might seep down into the ice sheet and help disintegrate it.

There's a warm central house at Camp Summit, with a friendly common area and terrific food, including the best soup this correspondent has ever tasted. Quality of food is understood, by the managers of this remote site, to be important for morale, as scientists work against the elements.

But, another caution I'd been given also panned out: almost none of the first-timers at Summit sleep through the first night.

You start to fall asleep in the tents, pitched on the snow-covered ice, then wake up, heart racing, and gasping for air as your body's autonomic nervous system tries to figure out why it isn't getting enough oxygen.

By the second day, my body adjusted, and I found that, when you explore the vast open white spaces — step out into the sparkling snow — then, the immensity of it all is exhilarating.

Summit Camp is the newest of what will now be a system of six observatories around the world run by the U.S., all of them monitoring the warming atmosphere as global warming advances. At Summit Camp, they will try to gauge how quickly climate change might destabilize this ice sheet, which would raise worldwide sea levels even faster.

That's something we were reminded of two days later on a boat carrying tourists through the towering icebergs at the mouth of the Ilulissat ice fjord.

The tourists were toasting their chilly, but cheerful, trip with drinks, cooled by chunks broken off the mountainous white masses crowding in around the little boat.

These were, of course, only the tips of the true icebergs — nine-tenths of each hidden out of sight (as the true magnitude of the global warming crisis still seems to be) now flowing faster and faster out into a warming sea.