Destination: Greenland -- Lessons from the Ice

05/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Destination GreenlandStanding in the polar wilderness, the realities of global warming can seem utterly paradoxical. Surrounded by a vast expanse of white, the Arctic looks and feels completely untouched by man, as far away from human civilization as any place could ever be. Yet it is also where the effects of our greenhouse gas emissions, our economies, and our lives are concentrated in outsize proportions.

A couple of years back I joined the Cape Farewell project for a three-week oceanic voyage from the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard to the northeastern coast of Greenland. Ever since then, I've been rather arctic obsessed.

It's not just the "arctic fever" -- an addictive sort of awe and bewilderment described by many who have ventured to the far north -- that keeps me in thrall. It's also the critically important role that the poles play in our understanding of and response to global warming. Nowhere are the effects of rising temperatures so empirically obvious as at the ends of the earth.

Scientists have long known that the Arctic is warming at nearly twice the global average rate. This is due to the phenomenon of "solar heating," or when light, reflective snow and ice melt, revealing much darker ground and water that absorbs more of the sun's warm rays. Thus, the Arctic region is caught in what scientists call a "negative feedback loop," as this warming effect causes more snow and ice to disappear, causing even more warming. So fast is the area changing, that the folks who live there--mostly indigenous Inuit villagers--are struggling to adapt. And adapt they must. These are people whose entire livelihood is dependent on the land, sea, and--most importantly--ice around them. And now, their traditional hunting and fishing territories are shrinking with the ice. The struggles of these increasingly vulnerable populations are very real harbingers of a world less stable. Their lessons are ours as well.

I'm not the only guy I know who's fallen victim to the environmentalist's strain of "arctic fever." A couple of months ago I was introduced to Larry Lunt through my job as an editor at NRDC's OnEarth magazine. Lunt is a Belgian private investor and a member of NRDC's Global Leadership Council, as well as a member of the International Polar Foundation. He travels to the Arctic every year, and was about to take off for two weeks in northern Greenland. This time he wanted to do more than get his own polar fix, he wanted to share his experiences with others, and he wanted to tell the story of the people and places trapped in global warming's crosshairs. Of course, I wanted to go along. I couldn't, so I agreed to help him tell his story.

For the past week, Lunt has been emailing me photos and dispatches from the field, as the two set out to ski 200 miles across the Humboldt Glacier, the Northern Hemisphere's largest and fastest moving river of ice. I'm wildly jealous of his adventures, even though he did lose his luggage in transit (apparently there's no escaping the realities of modern air travel). He's sharing gear with his travel companion, the famed Belgian explorer and co-founder of the International Polar Foundation, Alain Hubert. Though I consider myself well versed on all things Arctic, Lunt is telling me things I hadn't known: stories about the Inuit people who count the polar bears that wander through their small town when the sea ice melts, and the village elders who remember when the government of Denmark forced them to move their entire village to make way for a U.S. Air Force base back in 1953.

So even though I can't bear witness to these stories myself, I'm eager to help Lunt and Hubert get them out there. If you're an Arctic addict like me, or just someone who thinks of Greenland as something other than a blank, poorly-projected blob on a classroom wall map, you might like to follow their journey. I'll be posting updates here, but you can follow along for yourself at OnEarth magazine's Destination: Greenland page.

Lunt and Hubert enjoy the warmth of traditional Inuit apparel before leaving Qaanaaq (and the fur) behind.