THE BLOG

Greenland's Massive Ice Cap in the Depths of Winter: Going Barmy Instead of Balmy on the Looney Front -- Part 1

03/16/2015 12:17 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015

Talk about wrong way Mike! Everybody else is escaping the extra harsh cold in the north-eastern United State by flying south to the Caribbean, so how come I'm flying north to deepest Greenland in the depths of winter?

Notwithstanding Mother Earth's late February planetary rigor mortis on the Ice Cap below, the views from the cozy warmth of Air Greenland's brilliant crimson A330 Airbus are stupendous - a vast ocean of ice and snow - as we fly from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq near the west central coast. The Ice Cap takes up 80 percent of the world's largest island.

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Google Greenland map

Greenland's east coast has several mountain ranges reaching 10,000 feet or so, and the sun is bathing their peaks, razor ridges and pinnacles in dramatically theatrical light as they soar out of the Ice Cap as far as the eye can see.

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Greenland Ice Cap with mountains from Air Greenland A330 Airbus

Blinding white, they cast enormous jagged shadows of cathedrals, castles and fortresses on the snow fields behind them. Then they cease, giving way to the endless flat vastness of a 660,000-square-mile ice sheet that varies in depth from over a mile to around two miles.

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Mountains, closer look

Lord help the world as we know it if we continue to melt it with our carbon emissions, despite the Koch brothers', the oil industry's and the conservative right's insistence that everything is hunky dory. Last year the melt extent was well above average, tying for 7th highest in 35 years of satellite records.

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Shadow castles and cathedrals

Scientists estimate that if it were all to melt, the level of the seas worldwide would rise by 24 feet.

But today there's still an enormous amount of ice down there, an estimated 684,000 cubic miles to be exact. Now that's an awful amount, clearly enough for more than a few whiskies on the rocks. Actually some computer whiz kid ought to do the maths - how many on-the-rocks would 684,000 cubic miles of ice provide? You'd get a good ice vintage, too; some of it's over 110,000 years old.

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Ice Cap's never ending expanse

It's still over an hour to landing and Air Greenland's in-flight magazine is offering delicious tidbits on local Inuit etiquette. If you break wind while eating bear meat, you must immediately say 'that noise came straight from the ice,' because bears come from the ice and the bear's soul will not be offended.

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Kangerlussuaq's frozen fjord from the air

Talk about the proverbial brass monkey. I've just exited the plane at Kangerlussuaq and my voice has already gone up nine octaves. The settlement, at the top end of a 100-mile long frozen fjord, is the coldest inhabited place in Greenland. At the moment the mercury's at -36 Celsius, that's -33 Fahrenheit. Factor in the wind chill and it's closer to -48 C., that's -54.4 F.

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Kangerlussuaq Airport and frozen fjord from the air

It's so cold that white specks of frost form on your face and balaclava from your breath, your eyebrows freeze over and your eyelashes sprout mini-icicles, the lids gumming together when you close them. Such is life on the sunny Greenland Riviera.

They tell you not use face cream because of the water it contains. It'll turn to ice when it's already in your skin - with results that evidently range from the interesting to the catastrophic.

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Kangerlussuaq fjord in winter garb

Just taking your glove off for a few seconds to operate your camera produces the days-long numbness, tingling, skin hardening and swelling of incipient frost bite.

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Kangerlussuaq airport with flight times sign post

We're talking real bundling up here: thermal underwear, ordinary underwear, shirt, trousers, thick jersey, padded over-trousers, two padded jackets, hat, balaclava, hood, three pairs of socks, boots - and from now on more easily manoeuvrable knitted gloves underneath the padded ones.

Kangerlussuaq has the distinction of being the only place in Greenland where you can actually drive up to the Ice Cap, at the end of a 25-mile road that is also the island's longest.

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Track up to Ice Cap

A deep cleft shows a massive bluish-greenish-greyish wall of ice soaring several dozen feet upwards. A snow-carpetted track ascends, and here you are atop those 684,000 cubic miles of frozen ocean, towering glaciated waves and plunging troughs.

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Kangerlussuaq Ice Cap cleft

Glistening semi-translucent ice blocks emerge through the snowy covering. It just goes on and on, and then on. Rocks and boulders speckle the ice.

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Cleft close-up


A hardy group of tourists, from places as different as Singapore and Denmark but with similar 'wrong way' predilections, trudges across the snow-covered ice with a guide to keep them on the track and away from hidden death-inviting crevasses.

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Atop the Ice Cap

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Another view


The views are metaphorically breath-taking, the cold literally so. The massive ice blocks and clefts give ample opportunity for photo posturing, and the ubiquitous, cursedly inevitable selfies - look, Mum, I'm holding up the ice wall.

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Holding up the ice wall


For some bizarre reason the guide ignores an invitation to use the substance at hand for a few double whiskies on the rocks - or to calculate how many such drinks the Cap could produce. But he does proffer some excellent, steaming hot chocolate.

Ah, the warming glow within atop the frozen mass without!

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Looking down on a crevasse

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Pure ice slab emerges from the snow

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Another view atop the Ice Cap

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And another

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.