Why Arctic Ice Matters Even More
Than You Think

Jon Gertner on the Disappearing Ice Sheet of Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

Late one afternoon in April 2015, I found myself standing on the side of a desolate airport runway in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, looking west toward an overcast sky. Next to me stood a group of NASA employees, all of them scanning the same gray clouds. There wasn’t much small talk. As the temperatures dipped below freezing, we blew on our hands and kept our eyes fixed on the horizon. “We’re running late,” Luci Crittenden, a NASA flight operations engineer, finally declared. She looked down at her watch, then stomped her feet to keep off the chill.

Not long after, we heard a dull roar in the distance. And soon enough, we could see it coming—a stout-bellied U.S. Army C-130, trailing a plume of black exhaust. “Uh-oh, I think it’s on fire,” a woman standing next to me, Caitlin Barnes, remarked. I knew this was a joke—sort of. When the aircraft landed a few minutes later, the problem as far as I could tell wasn’t an overheated engine, but old age. The plane taxied down the runaway, made a quick hairpin turn, and came to a vibrating halt in front of us, its rotating propellers making a thunderous racket. If a dozen rusted rivets had popped off the fuselage, or if a wheel from the landing gear had rolled off, I would not have been surprised. The machine looked positively ancient.

No one said much. But then Jhony Zavaleta, a NASA project manager, yelled over the din, “1965!”

Apparently, this was the year the aircraft had been built. I wasn’t sure if Zavaleta was amazed by the fact or alarmed. And in some ways it didn’t matter now. For the next few weeks, barring any mishap, the C-130 would fly this group around Greenland, six days a week, eight hours a day. It had spent months in the United States being customized for the task. Under the wings, belly, and nose cone were the world’s most sophisticated radar, laser, and optical photography instruments—the tools used for NASA “IceBridge” missions, like this one. The agency’s strategy was to fly a specially equipped aircraft over the frozen landscapes of the Arctic so that a team of scientists could collect data on the ice below.

The IceBridge program had come into existence at a moment when the world’s ice was melting at an astonishing rate. Our plane’s instruments would measure how much the glaciers in Greenland had thinned from previous years, but the trend was already becoming obvious: on average, nearly 300 billion tons of ice and water were lost from Greenland every year, and the pace appeared to be accelerating. Yet it was also true that hundreds of billions of tons meant almost nothing in the vast expanse of the Arctic. The ice covering Greenland, known as the Greenland ice sheet, is about 1,500 miles long and almost 700 miles wide, comprising an area of 660,000 square miles; it is composed of nearly three quadrillion—that is, 3,000,000,000,000,000—tons of ice. In some places, it runs to a depth of two miles.

 And so the larger concern, at least as I saw it, was not what was happening in Greenland in 2015, or even what might take place five or ten years hence. It was the idea that something had been set in motion, something immense and catastrophic that could not be easily stopped.

Ice sheet collapse was not a topic of everyday conversations in New York or London. Even if you happened to know some of the more unnerving details—about rapidly retreating glaciers, for instance, or about computer forecasts that suggested the Arctic’s future could be calamitous—it was easier to think of the decline in ice as a faraway dripping sound, the white noise of a warming world. Still, by the time I signed on with the IceBridge team, the fate of the world’s frozen regions seemed to me perhaps the most crucial scientific and economic question of the age:

The glaciers are going, but how fast? The ice disappearing from Greenland, along with ice falling off distant glaciers in Antarctica, would inevitably raise sea levels and drown the great coastal cities that a global civilization—living amidst the assumption of steady climates and constant shorelines—had built over the course of centuries. But again, the pressing question: How soon would that world, our world, confront the floods?

In truth, Kangerlussuaq is more of an airstrip than an actual town, a place to pass through on your way to somewhere else. Though its population hovers around 500, the only real hub of activity is the airport café.

Not long after the C-130 landed, we clambered up a staircase and stepped into the passenger cabin. We entered a long, cavernous room with a grime-streaked floor that smelled strongly of engine oil. Electrical cables snaked up the walls. Arctic survival packs swung from a ceiling net. I noticed a crude, freestanding lavatory toward the back of the room; an old drip coffeemaker and microwave oven were secured to a table along the far wall, with Domino Sugar sacks piled high on a pallet underneath. Positioned in the center of the cabin, in front of several rows of seats, were banks of gleaming computer consoles and high-resolution screens. And bolted to the floor was a massive instrument that resembled a cargo container you might attach to the roof of your car to haul gear on a vacation. This was a laser tool—an altimeter—to measure the height of the ice below.

On the outside, the plane looked ready for the scrapyard. On the inside, it was a fortress of technology. I took another look around. The science team was already logging on to the computers, readying themselves for the schedule of flight missions that the IceBridge team would follow this year. The pilots, with fresh crewcuts, were intro

duced to us as aces recruited from the navy and air force. Then they, too, excused themselves so they could check the instruments in the cockpit and get ready.

The first flight, I was told, would leave the following morning at eight-thirty sharp. “Be here or be left behind,” John Sonntag, the mission leader and a native Texan, told me after we walked back out to the tarmac. Sonntag had been deployed to Greenland more times than he could properly recall. He had an easy manner, a friendly grin. But he meant what he said. The work was too important to accept delays. His team had come here, pretty much to the end of the world, to understand how and why trillions of tons of ice were melting into the ocean. They were not acting on the assumption that they would soon find out, but with each flight and each yearly mission, the data piled up: ice lost; water gained. The goal was to gather more and more evidence in the hope that it would ultimately lead us toward an answer—before it was too late.

Kangerlussuaq is located on the west coast of Greenland, just north of the Arctic Circle. For several years, I came in and out of this village with some regularity to connect with flights that were either heading to towns along the western or southern coast of Greenland, or to link up with scientists who were using Kangerlussuaq as a base for fieldwork on the central ice sheet, which begins about 20 miles east of the settlement. In truth, Kangerlussuaq is more of an airstrip than an actual town, a place to pass through on your way to somewhere else. Though its population hovers around 500, the only real hub of activity is the airport café. Caught in the half-light of transit, visitors eat and drink here as they await arrivals or departures. There are no highways out of town—indeed, there are no highways or arterial road systems anywhere in Greenland. In winter, to get to another village, you either fly by propeller plane or—if the ice along the shoreline is thick enough—take a dogsled. In warmer months, you might opt for a ferry that runs up and down the coast.

Sometimes, I would find myself stuck in Kangerlussuaq for a weekend, with no flights coming in or going out, and to pass the time I would walk for hours on empty trails in the neighboring countryside or explore the deserted roads around the airport. The town dates back to World War II, when Greenland—a convenient halfway point between North America and northern Europe—became a key outpost for American military defenses and a pit stop for refueling planes. There are few trees in Greenland, and only a modest amount of greenery, but in the Kangerlussuaq region there are wildflowers and willow bushes and soft sphagnum mosses; there are staggering mountaintop vistas, too, over rocky bluffs and hidden fjords and lakes too numerous to count. There are caribou in abundance, as well as musk oxen and puffy white Arctic hares. The breezes are clean and otherworldly. The first time I landed here and took a deep breath, I stopped to wonder if the air was made from some other substance altogether.

For hours on end, there was only ice and rock, ice and rock, ice and rock. In my notebook I wrote: Someone would think we’d left no traces here at all.

On the morning after our C-130 arrived, we took off on that first IceBridge flight. Our route from the west coast was plotted across the island, due southeast, toward Greenland’s rugged eastern coast, where dark, jagged peaks jut up like huge animal teeth from a prehistoric crust of snow-covered ice. It would be a long ride. Greenland is the world’s largest island—about five times the size of California, and three times the size of Texas.

 Just over 80 percent of the land is covered by the central ice sheet. Though it’s home to a population of about 56,000 people, most of whom are descendants of the native Inuit, this is the least densely populated nation on earth. Only Antarctica, on the opposite end of the globe (and, technically, not a country) is more barren, and only Antarctica has more ice.

After we took off, we scudded through a layer of thick clouds for a half hour. But the sky soon cleared, and the white world below came into crisp resolution. The strategy for these missions is not to fly high but to fly low. Staying steady all day at 1,500 feet is ideal. There was agreement on the C-130 that the ice sheet, at least from our height, tended to look like handmade paper, the kind sometimes used for fine stationery, with visible fibers and textured imperfections. But the technicians on the flight spent very little time gazing out at the scenery. With the clearing weather, they began scrutinizing their computer screens, watching sine waves and radar images and the data streaming in about the ice below.

At that point, I made my way through the main cabin toward the front of the plane. From there, I could hop up a short ladder to the flight deck and watch, through large cockpit windows, as the pilots skimmed over Greenland’s frozen interior. For three hours we passed above this pale world, until we at last approached the east coast and began trailing the snaking course of big glaciers—wide rivers of ice that flow from the edges of the sheet, down through mountain valleys to the ocean’s dark edge, where they collapse and explode into iceberg-strewn chaos. Without exception, what lay below was a sight of uncommon beauty and uncommon strangeness. Taking in the immense expanse of Greenland from low altitude was like surveying the landscape of some kind of frozen exoplanet. The hard blackness of the coastal mountains, the soft whiteness of the ice sheet—the only color intruding on the scenery was the light blue of the sky and a deeper blue from crevasses in the ice that radiated a luminous, aquamarine glow. Down below there were no people, no houses, no movement. For hours on end, there was only ice and rock, ice and rock, ice and rock. In my notebook I wrote: Someone would think we’d left no traces here at all.

Many of the places below had names, though. And during the course of the day and those that followed, I could piece together from my aerial view the history of an island where men and women had spent centuries charting an apparently vast emptiness that had turned out to be anything but empty.

 Along the coasts, Greenland’s peninsulas, capes, and glaciers bore the names of explorers who had passed this way on geographical expeditions in the 19th and early 20th centuries—French, British, Danish, Inuit, Norwegian, German, and American. Many of these people were fairly obscure, all of them were now dead. But down below were also reminders of a more recent age of science. As our plane passed the center of the island, we roared over coordinates that marked historical sites from the 1930s and 1950s—scientific outposts in the middle of the ice sheet where large leaps were made in our understanding of the earth. These camps were now invisible, lost beneath decades of accumulating ice and snow, but near to where they once stood I could discern a place that was still functional: Summit Camp, a research station located in the dead center of the ice sheet, sited at an altitude of about 10,000 feet. A cluster of buildings comprised the camp. Down below I saw a few tractors frosted white. Then all signs of civilization fell away, and our plane was again zooming low over the nothingness of the ice sheet.

I had to remind myself that it wasn’t actually nothingness. I recalled a story from the early 1930s about a German glaciologist named Ernst Sorge who took one of the first flights over Greenland’s central ice— “the white desert,” as it was sometimes called then—as a passenger in a small airplane. Sorge had already spent a brutal winter in the center of the ice sheet; he had also traversed it many times by dogsled. But the view from above that day was different than what he had so far encountered. It transfixed him. He would later write: “I said to myself, ‘I’m looking at a landscape whose vast simplicity is nowhere to be surpassed on earth, and which yet conceals a thousand secrets.’”

Without that knowledge of the ice, it seems all too easy to believe that our understanding of the Arctic, and of an endangered natural world, is somehow the product of ideology or opinion.

Thirty years ago, in his book Arctic Dreams, the writer Barry Lopez put forward the notion that “as temperate-zone people, we have long been ill-disposed toward deserts and expanses of tundra and ice. They have been wastelands for us; historically we have not cared at all what happened in them or to them.” Lopez predicted, however, that the value of these places would one day “prove to be inestimable.”

Lopez’s gift to readers was his ability to render the poetic complexity of the north and explain how its fragile lands and wildlife were coming into conflict with fishing and mining industries. Other writers, meanwhile, have focused less on the ecosystems of the Arctic and more on the resilient culture of the Inuit, who came to Greenland about 800 years ago by way of the sturdy sea ice that connected the island with northern Canada. These books can be especially compelling in how they challenge Western conventions. To read, say, the French anthropologist Jean Malaurie’s description of how in 1951 he watched a northwestern tribe of native men hunt, butcher, and eat a walrus—the blood was drained into a gasoline can

and shared between them as qajoq, or soup; the eyes were distributed for snacking; the digested food in the intestine (mussels, mostly) was freed and devoured; and the head, ivory tusks, and the heart, weighing 17 pounds, were awarded to the hunter who led the kill—is to see how different our 21st-century lives, and our 21st-century sensibilities, really are.

My book is mainly about Greenland’s ice sheet—the vast frontier that “conceals a thousand secrets” and is among the most remote and inhospitable places on earth. More specifically, I trace the lives of men and women who sought to understand the mysteries above, around, and within that ice. By describing their work, my intention is to tell the story of how we have come to know what we know. Without that knowledge of the ice—without that story—it seems all too easy to believe that our understanding of the Arctic, and of an endangered natural world, is somehow the product of ideology or opinion, rather than the result of hard-won facts and observations.

There are many ways to tell such a tale. The white expanse that covers the center of Greenland began to form about one million years ago when snow that had fallen during the colder months of the year stayed on the ground and endured through summer.

 Greenland is a semi-arid environment, which means that snow accumulations are modest. Still, decade after decade, enough snow began to pile up that its weight and pressure formed it into ice. Eventually, that ice became hundreds of feet thick—and later still, several miles thick. We might for a moment imagine these Greenlandic beginnings: A windy, rocky, barren stretch beset by deep freezes lasting tens of thousands of years. All the while, snow piles grow slowly but inexorably, year by year, and fuse together into an ice sheet, which in turn starts to thicken, flow, and spread in many directions, thanks to additional snowfalls and the forces of gravity. And then, finally—only very recently in geologic time—humans begin to wander onto the ice to try and uncover the secrets it might contain.

I’ve come to see Greenland’s ice as an analog for time.

The late 1800s and early 1900s are what we might call the waning days of the age of exploration. The men of that era discussed in the ensuing chapters—Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Peary, Knud Rasmussen, and Peter Freuchen—pursued geographical knowledge while testing themselves against the mortal dangers of the ice. In the years after these expeditions, the pursuit of adventure was eclipsed by the pursuit of ideas; or, to put it another way, a point arrived when the age of exploration was transformed into the age of discovery. In 1930, a German scientist named Alfred Wegener led a team of men on a hellish journey to the center of the ice sheet to set up a winter research station. Wegener’s colleagues, as detailed here, began to use new technologies to cross the ice and investigate it.

And in the decades afterward, hundreds of scientists followed in Wegener’s footsteps. In the late 1940s, Paul-Émile Victor, a trailblazing Frenchman, was among the first to perceive Greenland not as the goal of an occasional expedition but as the subject of constant scientific inquiry. Not long after, Henri Bader, a Swiss-American scientist, helped the U.S. military understand the Arctic terrain and began to see the potential scientific value hidden within the ice sheet. This work continues—not only in rarified endeavors such as NASA IceBridge flights, but in ongoing field research that brings teams of scientists to remote locations for weeks or months at a time, often drilling into the ice to collect samples known as ice cores, which contain records of ancient climates, or working to gather other precious information that comes at great financial and human costs.

For many of us living far from the Arctic, it seems reasonable to ask how much relevance we might find in these stories, or in the history of glaciology this book brings to light. Another way to ask that question is to consider whether the past, present, and future of Greenland’s ice is important to how we live now. The answer is no longer in doubt. It is difficult to grasp the full implications of climate change without understanding the work done on Greenland, seeing as its ice has told us (and is telling us still) secrets that cannot be found anywhere else. Foremost is the matter of sea level rise: within just a few decades, the melting in Greenland and Antarctica will afflict hundreds of millions of people who live or work near a coastal region, leading us into a terrible epoch of human dislocation and economic hardship. At the same time, the collapsing Greenland glaciers, coupled with a drastic decline in floating sea ice near the North Pole, may lead to other potential disasters, such as a change in Atlantic ocean circulations and a global disruption in weather patterns. “The melting of the Arctic will come to haunt us all,” climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf declared in the summer of 2017.

But there’s something more here, too—the possibility of encountering in this remote area, and in these stories of explorers and scientists, an essential aspect of our world too long neglected. We have no shortage of historical works about 20th-century wars, politics, and cultural upheavals. I offer an alternative history, running counter to the mainstream, that is sympathetic to the idea that understanding this Arctic island is not only useful but crucial. In the history of Greenland—“the world’s largest laboratory,” as the scientist David Holland once described it to me—we can find not only outsized characters who risked their lives in an unforgiving landscape, but a deeper sense of how scientific discovery happens on an epic scale. In light of this, we might ask ourselves what society does with new knowledge once it is found. How do we build upon it? How should we act upon it? And especially in the case of Greenland, how might it help us let go of the antiquated notion—the notion that concerned Barry Lopez—that the fragile, frozen far reaches of the planet are somehow unconnected to our lives?

I’ve come to see Greenland’s ice as an analog for time. It contains the past. It reflects the present. And it seems capable, too, of telling us how much time we might have left.


Excerpted with permission from the new book Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future by Jon Gertner. Published by Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, Copyright © 2019 by Jon Gertner. All rights reserved.

Jon Gertner
Jon Gertner
Jon Gertner is a journalist and historian whose stories on science, technology, and nature have appeared in a host of national magazines. Since 2003 he has worked mainly as a feature writer for The New York Times Magazine. His first book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, was a New York Times bestseller. A frequent lecturer on technology and science history, Gertner lives with his family in New Jersey.

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