Field Notes from Greenland: From the Glacier to the Sea

A supraglacial river. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

A supraglacial river. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The Greenland Ice Sheet is constantly in flux and is far from static. The world’s second largest body of ice has been especially dynamic in the past several years as climate change’s positive feedback loops have exacerbated melting. The region of northeast Greenland, for instance, maintained its mass from year to year until 2003. But in the past ten years, on average, it has been losing 10 billion tons of ice a year, according to researchers at the Technical University of Denmark.

When melting, some of the ice sheet begins to drain from the surface via supraglacial rivers such as the one pictured in the above photograph, which I took from a helicopter flying low across the surface. The research team of which I’m a part has been studying the area of the ice sheet in western Greenland. From this region, water drains into the Davis Strait separating Greenland and Baffin Island, Canada. We flew to the surface of the ice, about 50 kilometers inland from the edge, to study these rivers. They cut winding curves ranging from deep blue to crystal-clear azure in the ice. Some flow in shallow channels on top, while more powerful ones cut deep, incised canyons into the ice, like the one below.

A canyon cutting its way through the Greenland Ice Sheet. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

A canyon cutting its way through the Greenland Ice Sheet. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Nearly all of these supraglacial rivers end in moulins – holes in the ice sheet that are formed by flowing water, a topic my colleague, UCLA PhD candidate Vena Chu has researched. (There are also some helpful diagrams on her website that illustrate glacial drainage systems.) After traveling through a moulin, meltwater can drain out of the face of the ice edge or at the bottom of the glacier, lubricating its surface. In the below picture, the dark hole on the bottom of the left of the turquoise lake, sitting below two small waterfalls, appears to be a moulin. The lake water may have previously been level with the surface of the ice, but it could have since drained out through that glacial rabbit hole.

A moulin in a supraglacial lake on the Greenland Ice Sheet. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

A moulin in a supraglacial lake on the Greenland Ice Sheet. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The photograph below shows, from foreground to background, the crevasse fields at the edge of the ice sheet, the moraines pushed up by the retreating Russell Glacier, and the drainage basin in the west. The undulating tundra-covered hills are some classic features of a glacially carved landscape.

The view above the crevasse fields at the edge of the Russell Glacier above Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The view above the crevasse fields at the edge of the Russell Glacier above Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Eventually, at least coming off the Russell Glacier east of Kangerlussuaq, the meltwater flows via a number of meltwater outflow streams into the massive, churning, sediment-rich Qinnguata Kuusua (Watson River). Another one of my colleagues, Lincoln Pitcher, shot a video of the raging river in July 2012 after five consecutive days of above-freezing temperatures across the Greenland Ice Sheet generated what The Guardian called “an unprecedented thaw.”

The Watson River wends its way through the 60-kilometer long fjord leading out to sea. But it’s not just water flowing downstream. First of all, the water transforms from being incredibly clear up on the ice to being thick, gray, and chock-full of sediment after traveling only a few kilometers downstream. By the time it gets to Kangerlussuaq and passes under the town’s bridge, it’s essentially a rock, soil, and sand smoothie. And it’s not just earth that gets mixed into the river. During the 2012 flooding, an entire front-loader was washed downstream, as seen in Pitcher’s video. What’s more, the bridge over the Watson River was named after Jack T. Perry, who died while attempting to navigate the river in 1976 – a somber reminder of the power of glaciers, even once they have begun to melt.

The Watson River right after it passes under the bridge from Kangerlussuaq, and just before it flows into the fjord. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The Watson River right after it passes under the bridge from Kangerlussuaq, flowing out into the fjord towards the sea. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Field Notes from Greenland: The Road to the Ice

The Kanger-Ice Sheet road, not too far from the ice. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The Kanger-Ice Sheet road, not too far from the edge of the world’s second-largest ice body. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The Greenland Ice Sheet covers 81 percent of the country’s terrain and is the second-largest body of ice in the world, after its counterpart in Antarctica. Most of the ice sheet’s terminate in the ocean, but some end on land. Kangerlussuaq happens to be located only 25 kilometers from the ice sheet’s edges on land, and since the town is also quite a ways from the ocean, it’s one of the farthest inland settlements in Greenland. Another distinction Kanger enjoys is that it is the only place in Greenland where you can walk – and, it was once planned, drive – onto the ice sheet.

In the late ’90s, the seemingly now-defunct car testing company Nausta decided to build a 30-kilometer dirt road from Kanger to the ice sheet. Swedish company Skanska’s Greenlandic entity completed construction on the road in 2001. European car manufacturers like Volkswagen and Audi made plans to begin testing cars up on the ice, for they wanted to know how their cars would operate in near-freezing temperatures.

The longest road in Greenland, from Kangerlussuaq to the ice cap. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

For Nausta, a dirt road in Greenland wasn’t enough – they wanted to go all the way up to, and on top of, the ice. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

According to an article in a 2000 edition of the government-published This is Greenland“Iceland and Canada were considered for the task, but didn’t have the right stuff – the ice there wasn’t hard enough.” Aside from having rock-hard glaciers nearby, Kanger also has an airport with a runway large enough for the big airplanes that would ferry the cars from their European manufacturers to Greenland. From Kanger, with the road, it’s just a one hour drive to the ice sheet. In Iceland, by contrast, the air hub in Keflavík is several hours from the Vatnajökull ice cap by car. And for the car companies, which need to maintain every edge and secret within the competitive business of automobile engineering, Greenland certainly is hard to beat in the “remote” and “inaccessible” departments, helping to deter nosy reporters, car enthusiasts, and industrial spies.

As if the dirt road to the ice sheet was not enough, Nausta also intended to build a 150-kilometer track on the ice itself to its testing facility. An article in the Danube Messenger (in German) noted that the test site would have a hotel and cafeteria for approximately 40 employees and a 900 square-meter workshop for the automobile prototypes. There would also be a “small power plant, storage and waste container,” but none of this ever saw the light of day.

A metaphor for Nausta's woe befallen plans? So close to the ice sheet, but yet so far. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

A metaphor for Nausta’s woe befallen plans? So close to the ice sheet, but yet so far. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The project was abandoned in 2006 for reasons that are unclear, but probably easy to surmise when it comes to far-fetched megaprojects launched in the Arctic: cost overruns, remoteness, and challenging weather, to name a few. It’s nowadays impossible to drive a normal car from the road onto the ice sheet, as the glacier is retreating and leaving massive moraines – basically huge piles of dirt – in its wake. A Caterpillar bulldozer managed to make it up the road to the area where tourists can walk onto the ice, and the rusting piece of equipment has to constantly shift earth to clear the feeble pathways. The tourist attraction looks more like an industrial wasteland than the postcard-perfect image many tourists have in their heads of blue-white glaciers.

Bulldozer near the Greenland Ice Sheet at the end of the road from Kangerlussuaq. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Bulldozer near the Greenland Ice Sheet surrounded by moraines at the end of the road from Kangerlussuaq. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The Greenlandic government was a big booster of the Nausta project. Its publication cheerfully observed that “VW’s public relations staff will be able to use the hefty argument that the company’s cars are tested on the Greenland Ice Cap,” a statement which seem almost politically incorrect today, just 13 years later, due to increased awareness about the fragility of Arctic environments. In seeking out foreign investment, perhaps Greenland optimistically expected that Nausta, which already operated a car testing facility in northern Sweden where the industry is a big business, could deal with the challenges of working in the Arctic. But apparently, this wasn’t the case when it came to Kanger. The town was left with a road but no car testing facility, though this was probably for the best outcome for the integrity of the environment around the settlement. Already, it has been polluted by decades of military waste, the ongoing weekly burning of the town’s trash, and the dumping of sewage into the Watson River (so much for pure Arctic environments).

Nausta’s ill-fated project could have ended up being a road to nowhere. Happily, however, it has brought benefits to Kanger by turning into both a tourist attraction and now-indispensable road for scientists studying the ice sheet. In a country where helicopters cost $5,000 an hour, being able to drive to the ice saves a huge amount of money. The road is Greenland’s longest, and as it goes from the airport to the ice sheet, it makes for a good day trip. I’ve now driven up and down the road four times and run about half of it, and it is stunningly scenic, curving through the Isunngua highlands carpeted by tundra and alongside a glacially-fed river. The jagged crevasse fields of the ice sheet peak out at numerous turns. Many tourists make the drive with the local tour operator Arctic Circle during their layovers between Copenhagen and onward destinations in Greenland. Half marathons, marathons, and bike trips also all now take place on the road. Local residents might have benefited more from a road to the nearby big city (in Greenlandic terms) of Sisimiut 130 kilometers away on the west coast, for there are still no roads between any two inhabited settlements in Greenland. Yet at the very least, they can still make use of the road to the ice, especially the hunting guides who use it to access areas of the tundra inland from Kanger where muskox and caribou roam. And while fancy German cars can’t make the drive up the road onto the ice, all-terrain vehicles can, attracting off-road adventurers to come to Greenland. The environmental impact of Greenland’s longest road is unclear, but at the very least, the economy of what’s still mainly an airport town has diversified thanks to the construction of the road.

Where the road - and N's dreams of an ice track testing ground - end. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Where the road – and Nausta’s dreams of an ice track testing ground – end. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Field Notes from Greenland: A Glacier Calves

The glacier before it calved, on August 20, 2014. © Mia Bennett.

The glacier before it calved, on August 20, 2014. © Mia Bennett.

The glacier after it calved. August 22, 2014. © Mia Bennett.

The glacier after it calved, on August 22, 2014. © Mia Bennett.

Part of Russell Glacier just east of the road from Kangerlussuaq up to the ice sheet collapsed into the river within the past two days. We drove by the ice sheet around 2:00 pm on Thursday, August 21, and just a few icebergs were floating in the river below the glacier front. My colleague noticed that the glacier looked ready to calve, as it was overhanging. We camped further up the road for a night to do some fieldwork on the proglacial rivers (the ones coming right off the ice sheet) – but perhaps we should have set up our tents at the campsite in front of the glacier to witness what must have been a dramatic event.

The next day, on Friday, August 22, we drove back down the road to Kanger around 7:00 pm, about 29 hours later. By that time, the glacier had calved, creating an ice field below. In several Inuit languages, including Greenlandic, they call this calved ice uukkarnit. Huge, blue-white chunks were floating in the river, some more precariously than others. Smaller pieces were swirling in the currents, some getting stuck in an eddy and others washing up on the sandy riverbank. Some pieces were frosty white, while others had lines running through them – signs that they had melted and then refrozen at some point in their existence on the ice sheet. During the collapse, the force of the ice chunks jettisoning into the river must have caused a huge wave, as the water line went back a significant ways on the riverbank.

Of course, this calving event is minor compared to the enormous “ice islands” several times the size of Manhattan that calved off the Petermann Glacier in northwest Greenland in 2010 and 2012In English, we sometimes say things “move at a glacial pace,” but ice calving – and climate change – bring a whole new speed to that turn of phrase.


To check out a Photosynth I made of the calved glacier, click here.