The jagged and mostly uninhabitable terrain of Greenland is worthy of a Jack London novel. Eighty percent of the country is smothered by the world’s second largest ice sheet. You certainly wouldn’t want to explore it alone without knowing how to build a fire. Countless journalists have already penned articles, however their reports have focused on the apparent taming of this landscape because of global warming. In August and September, with funding from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and NBC, I traveled to this so-called edge of the earth to document both the science behind climate change and the real-life changes already impacting locals and the wildlife they live among.
My expedition was twofold: travel in the field with scientists who are documenting the impact of climate change and speak with locals who are experiencing it. I headed out to Greenland alone, armed with a video camera and enough camping gear to fill a backpack nearly the size of me.
Before I could tell these stories, I had to get there. Booking airfare was a journey in its own right. In order to get to the two villages where I had set up interviews, I needed to book five flights on a plane, two on a helicopter and one seat on an extremely bumpy motorboat.
My first destination was the Sermilik fjord near the town of Tasiilaq, a mirrored world of water, ice and stone. The fjord, a kind of river, is the main artery for the Helheim Glacier, considered by scientists as the most active glacier in the world. Ice, unlike rock, moves. As ice moves it calves, or breaks. Like an ice machine, the glacier deposits those icebergs into the fjord. Those bergs eventually drift into the ocean. The more ice added to the ocean, the more it will rise. (Think of fountain soda from your local fast-food joint.) The cause of this glacial deterioration and subsequent sea-level rise is under investigation by two groups of scientists.
Gordon Hamilton is a Scottish-born glaciologist from the University of Maine’s Climate Institute. In 2005 Hamilton dreamt up and executed a daring way to track the movement of the glacier: attach GPS devices to it. He’s the George Clooney in a cast of scientists whose research is as bold as the heist in Ocean’s Eleven. I joined his team in a small helicopter as they landed on icebergs and placed the tracking devices on their surface.
The second part of my trip was Ittoqqortoormiit. Only 450 Inuit Eskimos live in this arctic fishing town on Greenland’s Northeast coast. There’s only one flight in and out once a week. While Ittoqqortoormiit is considered one of the most remote villages in the western hemisphere, it is not isolated from the effects of climate change. A typical summer lasted one month. Today it stretches to three. A longer summer means a harder trek for polar bears who use the ice as frozen bridges to get to their dinner of choice, seals. In the past five years Inuits in Ittoqqortoormiit say the bears haveabandoned the difficult hunt and headed into town where they often rummage through garbage.“We’re trying to adapt. Like bear, it’s become difficult for us to hunt seals,” said one local. “These days, we’re accustomed to much longer hunting trips. And we never come back empty-handed. The next catch is never guaranteed."