In February, I came within a few degrees of 70 latitude south in Antarctica (see Solo to Antarctica ...) And I returned a few days ago from northern Greenland at the same latitude north, 250 kilometers above the Arctic circle. (As my friends wryly note, I'm now bi-polar.)
Witnessing the silent white/blue coldness of ice shelves, ice caps, glaciers and icebergs in our polar regions is life-altering. How can you not be moved to change when the world seems to be melting before your eyes?
The Greenland ice cap, fourteen times the size of England, covers most of this largest island in the world, and contains 10 per cent of the world's total reserves of fresh water. It has become a major symbol for global warming. The ice is constantly changing and moving, and every year sheds thousands of icebergs into the sea from glaciers in the central and north-western regions. These bergs consist of heavily compacted snow that fell up to 15,000 years ago.
The ice fjord I visited near Ilulissat is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sermeq Kujalleq near here, the fastest moving glacier in the world, produces the most ice--20 million tons a day. But since 1840 it has shrunk 40 kilometers, and in the past five years alone, over 15 kilometers --the equivalent of about 10 meters a day.
Last year, Arctic-Ocean ice was half of what it was four years before, and some climate researchers from the Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder Colorado now believe that these warming Arctic waters could be completely ice free by 2012. (Scientists previously estimated this wouldn't happen until 2040.) Global warming might trigger icebergs to break free from the leading edge of glaciers more frequently, opening the way for the glaciers to race even faster to the sea.
I passed within a few hundred feet of icebergs big as battleships, fortresses, and cathedrals, and thousands of chunks gently drifted past in the Arctic currents. Some of this ice will float more than 2,500 miles south before melting at latitudes of around 40 degrees, the latitude of New York.
Openings in some icebergs seemed to tempt our little red fishing boat to sail through (we didn't), and we crunched over ice the size of cars. Aqua water outlined the seven-eighths of ice below the surface, and small, clear bits -- frozen rain trapped maybe thousands of years ago and now freed -- float pure and sweet around us, like crystals in the sun.
Despite the warming trend, ice and snow surrounded me this Greenland April. I gingerly walked on it, and dog-sledged for hours along steep, white, glistening fields behind a fan of fifteen Greenlandic dogs and an Inuit driver sharing my sledge. And from the little red Dash-7 Air Greenland plane I gazed down on thousands of bergs in the sea, white polka dots on blue velvet. Looking inland, the vast icecap stretched as far as I could see. Near Kangerlussuaq, the air hub where we made connections, you can walk on this huge remnant from the last ice age.
Ilulissat is the third largest town in a country of 56, 000. Five thousand residents live in Lego-like, multicolor houses perched against the sea. Almost as many sledge dogs sleep in vast outdoor areas set aside for them.
I'm no expert, but I did talk to dozens of locals, mainly fisherman, who make their living at the Royal Greenland fisheries from these waters. Some of what they said:
-- The water temperature is two or three degrees warmer than in the recent past.
-- Cod have moved to the area, and shrimp have moved further north. Fisherman have not been able to ice fish recently, but they can now sail into fjords year round.
-- Sealers and whalers in Qaanaaq in north Greenland, say that the sea ice is three feet thinner today than earlier.
-- For the past ten years the Ilulissat harbor has not frozen, and it always did before.
(But this northern Greenland winter has been normally cold, a surprise to all, and I actually did walk on the frozen waters around Ilulissat.)
Greenland is becoming a world center of climate research. Three Ilulissat warehouses will soon become Kangia Ice Fjord station, where scientists and researchers will study climate change on a regular basis. You know things are happening when Condoleezza Rice will visit here next month; John McCain and Nancy Pelosi have already made the pilgrimage.
Perhaps as I did, Condi will be shocked and moved by the sea of majestic floating ice, one of the most beautiful, bittersweet sights in the world. Perhaps in the fading days of a failed administration she could be moved to speak out and actually follow through. And our country must: Al Gore has said that if we emit twice the amount of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases, and if the temperature increases by a couple of degrees, the almost three-kilometer thick Greenlandic inland ice will melt, and global sea level will rise seven meters. The horizon for such a scenario is a few hundred or a few thousand years, depending on which researcher you ask.
Next year in March, the Polar Year -- which actually has been going on for two -- more than a thousand researchers from 60 countries will report on polar climate change both in the Arctic and Antarctic. This should tell us more definitively about how much of the ice is melting, the role of gases and emissions, and prospects for the future.
I now have my personal, first-hand call to action from pole-to-pole warming: the iceberg-clogged Arctic waters, and this March, a couple of weeks after I was there, Antarctica's Wilkins ice shelf, 160 square miles wide, broken off near the western peninsula where I had been sailing.
While doubt still exists as to the speed of declining ice, and the complex relationships between causes of temperature increases, new ice will continue to be created for generations. It's just a question of how much and how long.