“It’s a good day for us and a bad day for the Greenland ice sheet,” muses Dr. Alun Hubbard as he slides another column out of the ice corer we’ve just pulled up from the glacier.
The metre-long column of compacted snow bisected by a 22-centimetre layer of clear ice certainly doesn’t look foreboding. In fact, the column is quite beautiful, the layers revealing themselves when backlit by the warm sun.
Standing outside in t-shirts far above the Arctic Circle, it’s difficult to think that anyone or anything could be having a bad day. To the west, the great, white expanse of the Greenland ice sheet stretches for 500 kilometres like a desert mirage, confusing the eye as to where it ends and the sky commences. Behind us to the east, the hulking mass of Mont Forel, Greenland’s second highest peak, dominates the view. To the north and south, nunataks—singular, pyramidal peaks piercing the ice sheet—resemble solitary sentries standing guard against some impending threat.
That we might be that threat isn’t lost on us, despite our best intentions to bring awareness, through a hybrid skiing and science expedition, to the rapid changes Greenland is experiencing. We’d collectively arrived from North America and Europe, via Iceland, to Tassilaq, an outpost of approximately 2,000 people on Greenland’s tortuous east coast. Our Salomon TV crew of eight included skiers Chris Rubens and Kalen Thorien, basecamp manager Simon Thomson, doctor and mountain guide Pierre Muller, photographer Bruno Long, filmmakers Mike Douglas and myself, and glaciologist Alun Hubbard. Bringing a working scientist along on a ski expedition was, in some ways, an attempt to justify the logistics and carbon footprint of an expedition to climb and ski Mont Forel. But it was also a chance to learn and see for ourselves some of the large-scale changes that climate change was bringing to the planet.
As skiers, climbers and adventurers, we travel to far-flung destinations, relying on planes, helicopters and Gore-Tex to peek a little farther around the next corner. All the while, the climate that supports these adventures continues to change because of the collective human machine we’re part of.
Do such trips have personal value? Undoubtedly. Do they forge a closer connection to nature and wild spaces? Yes. Is the ability to travel this way privileged and self serving? Also, yes. And while all of us might not frequent the remoter parts of the planet, as a mountain community, how do we reconcile the undisputed impact our lifestyle has on the places that so inspire us? Our hope on this trip was that we might offset some of our own impact by contributing to a greater scientific, and personal, understanding of how much our planet is changing.
For Alun’s part, he was only too happy to let Salomon foot the bill for his plan to drill numerous ice cores near Mont Forel in a quest to determine the extent of melting in the ice sheet’s upper elevations, the traditional zone of snow accumulation, and how much of that melt was being absorbed and re-frozen in the firn—granular snow yet to be compressed into glacial ice—or otherwise running off to contribute to global sea level rise.
On the ground, we decided to begin our education at the end of the glacial cycle with an overnight dogsled mission to iceberg-filled Sermilik Fjord. Here we’d have a chance to engage with local Greenlanders before flying up onto the ice sheet, where we’d then be isolated for two weeks. With each of us perched atop our own sled, pulled by teams of approximately ten barking and shitting dogs driven by a motley crew of local hunters and mushers, we climbed out of Tassilaq, crossing over a high glacier pass to the northwest before dropping down to Tiniteqilaaq on Sermilik Fjord. At the head of the fjord, the Helheim Glacier shunts 30 gigatonnes of ice each year into the ocean, making it one of the most productive of numerous outlet glaciers draining Greenland’s prodigious ice cap. A hamlet of only fifty or so souls, Tiniteqilaaq is small enough to be dwarfed by many of the icebergs that float past it.
While Alun could provide us a quantitative interpretation of the landscape and its processes, musher Tobias Ignatiussen offered a more anecdotal account of the changes Greenland was experiencing. Leading us on a boat tour amidst jostling icebergs, he recounted how he used to dogsled over the fjord’s once-more-solid ice to hunt. “Before, we couldn’t see the ocean because there was so much sea ice. Now, there are only ten kilometres of it and it isn’t as strong.”
April in the Arctic historically hovers around freezing, but we were ski touring in baselayers, and lounging at camp sans t-shirts in temperatures as high as 20˚C.
Interestingly, Tobias didn’t greatly lament the changes seen in his lifetime, but was instead glad to be able to use his boat to fish and hunt for seals. Whether this was because fuelling a boat was a more efficient means of feeding his community than keeping a team of dogs, or because there was some wisdom in simply adapting to the change, was unclear.
The next day, on our return journey to Tassilaq, we had our first visceral encounter with Greenland’s changing climate. After experiencing soft but cold conditions outbound to Tiniteqilaaq, the temperature spiked overnight, leaving us to navigate heavy, wet slush and shallow meltwater lakes on the return. Among other issues, it signalled a premature end to the season for the dogs, further diminishing this traditional practice.
Back in Tassilaq, we had chartered an Air Greenland helicopter to fly our crew and ton of gear to the base of Mont Forel. Arriving at the hangar at the appointed time, however, the pilot informed us he wouldn’t have enough fuel to reach Forel and make it back safely. He would, therefore, have to drop us thirty kilometres and 1,000 vertical metres shy of our intended destination. Not only would this compromise our goal of climbing and skiing Forel, but possibly prevent Alun from achieving any of his scientific aims.
“The science I have in mind requires we be in the accumulation zone of the ice sheet where the glacier is growing, not lower down where the glacier is melting,” he noted.
A professor of glaciology at both Aberystwyth University in Wales, and Tromso University in Norway, Alun has over 100 published academic papers to his name, including eight bylines in the prestigious journal Nature. The multi-million-dollar research projects he has managed have taken him from Alaska to Patagonia, Greenland to Antarctica—not to mention working with Sir David Attenborough on the BBC’s “Frozen Planet” series. Given such a résumé, Alun’s joining a group of skiers making a film might have seemed unconventional in academic circles, but he was nevertheless game. Even if unconvinced that it was the greatest of ideas, he at least felt it would be fun and offer a unique opportunity to reach a different audience with climate-science research.
“I used to dream of a trip like this that mixes science with adventure,” said Alun, whose curiosity for the natural world was cut with dry, Welsh wit and irreverence for the establishment. “So, for me it works brilliantly. Now what I’ve got to do is try and seek some legitimacy with my colleagues.”
In point of fact, it was for Alun yet another interesting tangent in a career that had included starting his own helicopter company—Arctic Research Support & Exploration (ARSE being the purposely chosen acronym)—after tiring of Air Greenland’s unreliable logistics support on earlier projects. Thus, to say Alun had little patience for the conundrum we suddenly found ourselves in would be an understatement.
After being abandoned by Air Greenland at the convergence of the Fenris and Paris glaciers—a particularly tumultuous mess of cracking ice within striking distance of Mont Forel—we set up a base camp amid a labyrinth of crevasses. As spectacular an area as it was dicey, giant granite monoliths rose from the glaciers, demarcating virgin couloirs. We made the most of it, spending a week exploring the skiing possibilities as we scratched down veins of thin snow atop blue ice, observing the distinct lack of coverage and continued warm temperatures that baked us and wilted the glaciers.
It was actually absurd how hot it was. We were ski touring in baselayers, and lounging at camp sans t-shirts. In the sun, Alun registered air temperatures as high as 20˚C. April in the Arctic historically hovers around the freezing point and we’d prepared accordingly, but what we got was downright balmy. Whether an isolated heat wave or yet another symptom of the rapidly changing climate in Greenland and other parts of the Arctic, we couldn’t tell. Alun, however, was more certain.
The climate that supports adventures such as ours continues to change because of the collective human machine we’re part of.
“The weather we’ve experienced, to my mind, is exceptional,” he’d noted. “I’ve been coming to Greenland for about 15 years to monitor melt, but this is completely off the scale. And if these temperatures continue, 2016 will be off the scale as well. We can’t keep breaking records like this and expect the ice sheet and outlet glaciers to sustain. They simply can’t survive such an onslaught of warming.”
In an attempt to gather at least some data of value, Alun assembled a drone to conduct an aerial survey of the surrounding glacier. A Styrofoam hobby plane held together by packing tape with a point-and-shoot camera stuffed into the nose, it certainly wasn’t the high-tech science we’d expected. Programmed to take a photo every second, Alun would stitch the resulting images together to form a large panorama that could be compared to a potential subsequent survey at some future date. Since this hinged on either he or another similarly equipped party returning, it wasn’t quite the data he’d hoped to compile. But it would make for a fleeting sense of achievement.
Or could have.
After numerous failed attempts to launch the drone by hand and then with a slingshot fashioned from a bungee anchored in the snow, Chris executed a mobile launch in which he skied down the glacier and threw the plane into the air at speed. Though Chris ended up with a bloody wound to his finger, the manoeuvre got the drone airborne. Sadly, however, it never returned, lost, along with what might have been the trip’s one and only feeble scientific take-home.
Meanwhile, as our scientific aspirations were breaking apart, so was camp. We’d returned from skiing one day to find a freshly opened crevasse in the vestibule of the tent I shared with Simon. Approximately 20 cm wide, the hole ran lengthways under my Therm-a-Rest, forcing us to move the tent. Simon mused speculatively that the glacier had “Probably moved a millimetre since we got here.” Alun set the record straight by comparing a geodetic GPS reading—accurate to a few centimetres—from when we first arrived to the present and deemed the glacier to be marching down the valley at a metre per day.
That glaciers move is a perfectly natural phenomenon, but it’s well documented that many of Greenland’s outlet glaciers are now receding and ablating, this net loss of stored water contributing to rising sea levels. However troubling to our immediate safety, it was another tangible encounter with the processes currently shaping our planet.
In an age of alternate truths, working to keep the facts visible and not allowing climate change to be pushed from public consciousness might be the most valuable outcome of all.
The following morning, we discovered that the cook tent was suspended above a gigantic crevasse large enough to fit our base camp tent inside. Lowering myself inside the cavern to inspect it, the floor—or lack thereof—dropped away to a dark abyss. This made patently clear the need to move to higher ground where temperatures would hopefully be colder and the ice more stable.
Thus chastened, the next day we’d loaded as much food and gear as possible into toboggans and began a burdened march up to Mont Forel. Bent at the hips, we each dragged 30–40-kilogram loads upward into the katabatic winds descending off the Greenland ice sheet, the spindrift often so dense we couldn’t see each other. But the sun prevailed, and after ten crushing hours of hauling, we crested the long glacial ramp skirting the north flank of Forel and stepped into an otherworldly landscape. Setting up camp at 2,400 metres on the high-tide line where the ice sheet lapped the foot of the mountain, we watched as the sun, threatening to set for three hours, traced a long arc across the horizon, shifting the colours in the snow from dusky pastels to deep royal blues. It was unlike anywhere any of us had ever been. In our exhausted and euphoric state, it was simply, and overwhelmingly, beautiful.
By our second ice-coring site the process is flowing nicely. Chris and Simon drop an orange drill bit into a 10-centimetre hole—now over eight metres deep—and manually rotate it to bite
into the ice. When the column is raised up, Alun makes note of the various layers, paying special attention to the hard, clear, refrozen melt strata he’d been looking for, before weighing 5–10 centimetres sections to sample and calculate the density of the ice, which comes in at 900 grams per litre. Alun explains that consolidated glacier ice (the ancient, condensed blue stuff that cracks off in icebergs) weighs approximately the same.
That a layer so dense exists at such shallow depth is not a normal occurrence—and decidedly not a good thing. The section is then passed to Kalen and myself to be melted in sterile bags and decanted into 100 millilitre sample bottles for transport to various European laboratories where geochemical analysis will determine when these layers formed.
We are neither buoyed nor deflated by the harsh reality of Alun’s discovery. For the time being, it’s welcome distraction from the terrifying prospect of skiing Mont Forel.
The dense, refrozen ice layer in question is significant because it correlates with a similar observation at our first drill site from a few days previous. Together, these support Alun’s hypothesis that high-elevation melt from the Greenland ice sheet is forming thick, buried impermeable layers on which subsequent melts run off, thereby contributing to higher rates of sea level rise than currently projected.
That the Greenland ice sheet is melting is not up for debate in the scientific community. What is contested, however, is how this melt might affect sea level rise, estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013 to be 0.7 mm per year. One widely accepted school of thought holds that the Greenland ice sheet acts as a large sponge, absorbing most surface meltwater and thus preventing it from reaching the ocean. Alun’s hypothesis, however, asserts that melt events from previous record warm summers are refreezing to form ice layers, or “pavements” in the upper layers of the accumulation zone, compromising the ice sheet’s overall ability to absorb melt. As melt percolates down through layers of firn snow, it hits these impermeable pavements and runs off towards the ocean, thus contributing to a faster than predicted rise in global sea levels.
Alun’s discovery is indeed a bad day for the planet, but our intrepid scientist likes finding what he’s looking for. Like the rest of us, he enjoys being right. “I should be able to write a paper with this result, so my colleagues won’t laugh at me for choosing to come out here with you lot,” he chuckles. We are neither buoyed nor deflated by the harsh reality this represents. For the time being, drilling is welcome distraction from the terrifying prospect of skiing Mont Forel.
Following some reconnaissance, it becomes clear that skiing Forel isn’t an option. A gargantuan serac holds the most obvious ski line hostage while the west ridge is a broken pile of rocks capped by a shimmering dome of blue ice. Instead, we decide to leave the skis behind and alpine climb the west ridge. Alun is also hoping we can accurately measure Forel’s height by geodetic GPS and submit the result to the Danish Geographic Society for use as a data point to track accumulation on the summit glacier in the future.
While Chris, Kalen, Simon, Pierre and myself make an ultimately successful attempt on Forel, Alun, Bruno and Mike set their sights on the first ascent of a 20-metre-high nunatak just visible from camp. What seemed a short jaunt when they set out turns into a 40-km round trip towards the centre of the ice cap, ensuring it takes longer to summit their pimple of a peak than our 3,396-metre behemoth (which we measured as 36 metres higher than previously mapped).
While our expedition concludes successfully from a scientific standpoint, guilt lingers as the issue of climate change continues to face us all. A rock sample Alun carries back to Europe for photolight testing reveals that after thousands of years buried within the ice sheet, the nunatak they climbed had only broken the surface within the last 30 years, further firsthand proof of the rapid changes to Greenland’s icecap.
To put these observations into an even broader context, as Alun predicted, the heatwave we experienced went on to be part of the warmest summer on record with runoff estimated to have contributed 1.1 mm to global sea level rise. According to NASA, “Each of the first six months of 2016 set a record as the warmest respective month globally in the modern temperature record, which dates to 1880.” Temperature records also accompanied record low levels for Arctic sea ice extent: winter 2016-17 would show the lowest maximum sea ice coverage in 38 years of satellite tracking.
Based on laboratory-derived oxygen isotope data, Alun was able to conclude that our main ice layer formed in 2012, the warmest summer on record to that point. Other thick ice lenses found at depths of 9.60 m and 12.4 m, respectively, were confirmed as having formed in 2010 and 2007, two other anomalously hot Greenland summers.
Further testing on particulate matter from the surface of the ice sheet revealed a decadal reduction in albedo (reflectivity). In this scenario, the ice sheet surface effectively darkens due to increased melt that concentrates in-situ dust and ever more carbon in the form of deposited soot (think of the blackening of city snowbanks at the end of winter).
The presence of such nutrients also enhances the growth of ice-surface algae, which enjoys a feeding frenzy each summer to create a very potent positive feedback loop—dark surfaces absorb more radiation and hence amplify melt, which further drives the cycle. Coupled with the ice sheet’s now-compromised ability to absorb melt, recent estimates for rate of sea level rise of around 0.8 mm per year are much too low, with Greenland now by far the greatest cryospheric contributor to the world’s rising oceans. Alun is currently preparing two academic papers from the expedition and has plans to return to Mont Forel to investigate the spatial variability of melt on the ice sheet. Other glaciologists who’ve picked up on the results are conducting further surveys to help better model the rate of sea level rise as it relates to the Greenland ice sheet.
As for ourselves, did the trip change any of our perspectives? Not a great deal. That climate change is a reality wasn’t in question before we arrived in Greenland, and hopefully it’s not news to you, either. However, witnessing such vivid exemplars and evidence of climate change, and weighing these against Alun’s findings, the experience brought into sharp focus that our global climate is, in fact, changing faster than previously understood. So, the question is what to do with this newfound insight? There’s plenty we can apply on the personal front and no doubt each of us has changed our own carbon behaviours for the better. But in an age of alternate truths, working to keep the facts visible and not allowing the issue to be pushed from public consciousness and off the global agenda might be the most valuable outcome of all.`