QAQORTOQ, Greenland -- -- On an inlet nestled between soaring cliffs, huge chunks of ice shimmer from a distance like precious stones on a cocktail ring.
The icebergs take on various formations — a swan, a whale, a ship, a floating island. Some are as white as the shaved ice on a snow cone. Others as glaring as Superman’s kryptonite. The thickest blocks look utterly alive with blue lines running through them like veins, the result of melting and refrozen crevices within the layers of ice that broke away from the glaciers that once covered the nearby cliffs.
Amidst the slow-moving icebergs, the sound of lapping water is interspersed with cracks and pops, similar to the noise that comes from pouring warm water over a frozen ice tray. Up close, one can hear the drip, drip, drip of melting ice. As the sun gets hotter, the drips become a trickle, then a steady flow like rain pouring through a gutter after a heavy storm.
This is a snapshot of climate change.
The melting is taking place thousands of miles away, but its effects can be felt in South Florida in the form of rising sea levels. According to recent studies, the sea level has risen nine inches since the 1920s and if the sea-rise trend continues to accelerate — as some predict — parts of the state could eventually be submerged under water.
As cities like Miami, New York and other vulnerable spots strategize about how to respond to climate change, researchers from the National Science Foundation, universities and global organizations flock to Greenland in search of answers.
“There isn’t really a debate as to whether or not global climate change is a thing. What the issue is, is what is causing it?,” said Carli Arendt, a Phd student at the University of Michigan’s Glario Chemistry and Isotope Geochemistry Laboratory (GIGL), who was in Greenland earlier this summer to collect water samples. “We’re just trying to, strictly for the science, figure out how things are melting and at the rate that they’re melting at.”
“We’re adding to the raw data to try to reduce speculation,” added fellow researcher Emily Stevenson. “Many people know what happens on top of the glacier by satellite imagery and things like that but not many people know what goes on underneath.”
“The different elements that get washed from under the glacier into the ocean can change the amount of nutrients, which can affect the primary producers and then all the different animals and fish that feed off them,” Stevenson said. “And the worry is that with the receding glaciers in Greenland, all these elements are being released into the seawater. It’s changing the local ecosystems.”
Greenlanders can attest to the effects.
“When you’ve been living here a long time, you really notice the change,’’ said singer Nive Nielsen, 34. “There’s a huge difference from when I was a child. We used to have so much snow we could pretty much sink in it when we jumped off bridges and stuff. Games we would play when we were kids seem impossible now.
“Even hunters or people who live off the land, they’re often out and then they’ll point at stuff and tell me where there used to be a huge glacier and it’s all gone,” Nielsen said. “It’s crazy how much it’s changed.”
“I think a lot of people in the world, because they live so much further south than we are, don’t notice the change as much as we are,” she said. “And I think explaining to them, trying to explain to them the changes that we see here and how fast they’re going, is an important message to bring forward. It’s not a joke. The climate change is really happening. It’s a real issue.”
Beyond the disappearing snow, Greenlanders also worry about effects on the environment, livelihood and lifestyle. Fishermen and hunters are going after different game now because the number of traditional species is dwindling. The melting glaciers also have exposed new land and access to minerals, which has sparked much debate.
“There is a concern about all the mining that could start now,” said Paul Henriksen, 72, a retired aircraft mechanic. “We are feeling this very much and we are afraid for pollution... There is wide discussion up here: should we allow it, or should we not? I think we should wait a little bit and see what happens.”
“We live off of the nature for hunting and fishing. Everybody does that,” Henriksen said. “So if we got some pollution, it would not be good.”
Aleqa Hammond, the country’s first female prime minister, said climate change is affecting the political, cultural and business sectors.
“We see the climate change here in three different ways: we have three climate zones and two time zones,’’ said Hammond, 47. “And the polar region and arctic region and subarctic region all are experiencing climate change in a different way. And all of them are putting us in a very delicate situation.
“Hunters and the people of Greenland live very, very close with nature. If the migration of the whales, the migration of salmon, the migration of reindeer is changing due to climate change, hunt fails,” she said. “And when hunting fails, people lie on a very, very big economic crisis.”
But climate change also has opened new economic opportunities for the world’s largest island, which is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. Mining has generated interest because mountains once out of reach are now accessible.
“In 2009, Greenland got the self-rule act...that says that the underground of Greenland belongs to the people of Greenland. That means that, for the first time ever, that we can develop mining where the income will be coming to the people of Greenland,” Hammond said. “It gives us enormous challenges to deal with it right so that Greenlanders are to be the winners of the whole new options and possibilities.”
Some farmers have also benefited from the change in weather.
“Except for this year, actually, the summer season has been longer and longer every year, so the yield can easily be bigger,” said Pilu Nielsen, whose family has been farming in Quaqortoq since 1972. “On the other hand, it’s also followed by severe droughts that makes it harder to grow the crops. But if you can take care of the irrigation, it’s a good thing that the summers are getting longer, for us at least.”
“We’ve always been adapting to any changes we have,” Nielsen said. “Climate change is just one of the adaptations. It’s got its perks and it’s got its challenges.”
Hammond said that while the new reality is just another chapter in Greenland’s long history, the world must take notice and react uniformly.
“We have been adapting to the Arctic that has undergone climate changes within the 4,500 years we have lived here. We will manage this one, too,” she said. “The world should be thinking as one.
“If the world is not thinking as one and not seeing climate change under the same definition, there will always be a fight about whether it’s manmade or not. Just because our ice cap is the biggest ice cap in the Nordic hemisphere and our ice cap is the result of the rising of the seas, doesn’t mean that we are to define it,” she said. “This is a world thing…This is a people’s thing…It is affecting everybody. It has to be a global agenda.”