Greenland: Above the Arctic Circle

August 22, 2017

I've always dreamed of going to places above the Arctic Circle, the colder and more remote, the better. In the past couple of years, I've traveled to Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Norway's Arctic regions, but Greenland was still on my list. It was the Vikings who called it Greenland to encourage people to settle there and possibly overlook the enormous ice sheet that covered 80% of the land. However, with the accelerated rate of climate change in the far north, the name now seems less improbable. Most of my trips to the North were taken during the winter, but the temperatures were warmer than usual, I could see and hear the ice melting on the glaciers and instead of snowfall, it rained. I wanted to see Greenland's massive icebergs before they too melted away. I was hoping to go there during midnight sun when 24 hours of continuous daylight would increase the amount of time I'd have for photographing the landscape. I got my wish this year when a space opened up in July on a Light and Land Photography Tour led by Antony Spencer.

Kalaallit Nunaat, which means the land of the Greenlanders in the Inuit language of Greenlandic, is the world's second largest island. It also has the lowest population density of any nation, with only 56,000 inhabitants. The majority of the largely Inuit population has settled along the southwestern coastal fjords where the climate is milder. Greenland is a constituent country of Denmark, but in recent times it has become increasingly independent as it assumes more autonomy and home rule. Tourism is relatively new to Greenland, and it's lightly visited at this point. The Inuit are welcoming and eager to share their culture with tourists. I stayed on the west coast of Greenland in the small fishing village of Ilulissat, population 4,500. Ilulissat, which means iceberg in Greenlandic, is situated at the mouth of Disko Bay. Enormous icebergs calve off from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier and travel 40 miles down the Ilulissat Icefjord on their journey to the open sea.

Ilulissat Icefjord, pictured below, was chosen in 2004 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique glaciology and natural beauty. While I was at this overlook, I heard thunder-like rumblings from melting ice calving off from the icebergs. 

 

 

The most exciting part of my trip involved boat rides out on Disko Bay to photograph the icebergs. For my boat ride on a rib boat, one step up from a zodiac, I had to wear an insulated, one piece survival suit to keep me alive if I were to fall in the water, although the relative flimsiness of my lifejacket in proportion to the weight of the suit made me somewhat skeptical of a positive outcome. 

It's not a good practice to get too close to icebergs, as we've learned from watching Titanic. Not only do you want to avoid hitting them, there's a tidal wave that can sink a boat if an iceberg chooses to roll over, which it does at random times. The tidal waves aren't limited to the bay either. Trekking across the lower part of the beach near the Ilulissat Icefjord is well within tidal wave danger, and prominent signs warn tourists to stay on higher ground.

The surface of Disko Bay was occasionally littered with bergy bits, forcing our boat to slow to a crawl as we heard the ice scrape against the hull. What I hadn't counted on was that the wind could shut down our photography excursions out on the water.  As soon as the water got choppy, the captain turned around and returned to the safety of the harbour despite the pleas of our photography group, which was probably a prudent decision in the long run. 

 

 Sunrise and sunset colors last a long time at this latitude during midnight sun.

 

 

A pinnacle shaped Iceberg in Disko Bay. Most of the icebergs I saw were not this symmetrical.

 

 

Below is an example of a massive, blocky iceberg. It was hard to imagine that I was seeing only 1/10 of the iceberg above water.

 

 

The shape of this iceberg reminded me of a marble palace, glittering in the sunlight.

 

 


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