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Global Warming: Greenland When It's Hot
The Arctic frontier is changing faster than anywhere else on Earth—in ways both spectacular and terrifying. The sea ice is melting, the glaciers are crumbling, and scientists and adventurers are scrambling like mad just to keep up.
Text by Paul Bennett   Photograph by Grant Dixon

Photo: Sledge dogs
GREENLAND'S NEW LOOK: Sledge dogs huddle together in Ilulissat, where warming air temperatures have softened the ice edge and shortened the dog-sledging season.

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Adventure Guide: Greenland

Satellite Tour:
Complete Meltdown

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To emphasize the point, Steffen's colleague, NASA scientist Jay Zwally, Ph.D., 67, shows me a series of charts and tables, the fruit of a decade's worth of data. Not even the whiskey, fatigue, and steam can blur the clear reality of the graphs' upward-ticking lines: Surface temperatures and ice-sheet velocity have risen exponentially at Swiss Camp over the past decade. It is a problem compounded by a new theory that Zwally and Steffen have developed about how ice tunnels, called "moulins," might be forming at a greater rate, speeding warming on the cap. Zwally points out that this is not just Greenland's problem. If warming continues at its current pace, Greenland's melting ice sheet will raise worldwide sea levels a startling 1.6 feet (less than a meter) in the next hundred years. Further melting could even shut off the warm ocean currents that keep Europe habitable, plunging it into an ice age.

But then Zwally puts down his charts, looks me in the eye, and dares me to get off the ice and visit the habitable fringe of Greenland, where subsistence hunters and adventure travelers are coming face-to-face with global warming on a daily basis. "You won't need a thermometer to see climate change," he says. "There, it's obvious. People are changing their lifestyles."
Greenlandic sledge dogs don't howl.

They whinny like worn fan belts and yap like castanets. They do this all day, which from May to August on most of the island is a full 24 hours. In a place such as Ilulissat, a small hamlet of 4,052 people that sits halfway up the west coast of Greenland, the cacophony at midnight is maddening. It used to be worse. Years ago dogs outnumbered people here. But since the winter sea ice disappeared in 2001, locals no longer use their dogs to hunt whales and seals trapped in a frozen Disko Bay. Other than the odd tourist trip up into the hills, these dogs are idle now. And so they whine and cry, until their owners decide that they're tired of wasting money on feeding them. The lucky ones are then shot. Most starve. According to Ilulissat's veterinarian, Marit Holm, 34, the Greenlandic dog population has declined nearly 25 percent in the past four years. "There's a tradition here to think of these dogs only as working dogs," she says, while tidying up her office, a chore that includes dragging a recently euthanized dog off her stoop. But since the dogs aren't earning their keep, she explains, people stop feeding them. "I spend 80 percent of my time doing animal-welfare work, traveling to the settlements just to kill dogs."

Outside of Holm's office, tourism agencies line the muddy hill of loose scree and fast-moving rivulets that constitutes Main Street. In years past, the shops made a good business of providing dog-sledging trips overland into the hills—a bumpy ride that lacks much of the grace and speed of gliding over ice. But the weather has warmed up too early this year and the trails are already too muddy. "I just got back," says a German woman who'd flown here a few days earlier to spend a week sledging on the nearby trails. "We got stuck in the mud on the first day, and the sledge driver had to call off the rest of the trip."

Things are much better up north. In the village of Uummannaq, dog sledging on the sea ice is still possible all winter long, into late April. And although the ice edge has gotten weaker in recent years, causing consternation among subsistence hunters, sport trips are thriving. A classic weeklong Greenlandic trek with a pack of dogs at high speed across solid ice in the footsteps of Arctic explorers Knud Rasmussen or Gretel Ehrlich is still a top draw for visitors.

Down at Ilulissat's harbor, the dogs can still be heard, but spirits here are lighter. Unlike most catastrophes, there is a subtle accounting to global warming in Greenland, with losers such as the dogs counterbalanced by winners such as the local fishermen. The warm-water currents that now flood into Disko Bay have brought record numbers of halibut to the area, and the industry is booming. And while the dogs whine on the hills, the men head out in wooden boats with longlines to pull in huge hauls. A fish factory above the harbor fills the air with steam and smoke. The transport ship that brings fish to market calls on the harbor twice as often today as it did five years ago.

In the afternoon I join the deflated German dog sledger on one of the fishing boats for an evening ride out around the point into the bay. The destination is the mouth of a deep-water fjord that, more than anything else, has put Ilulissat on the map—and will likely be the key to its future. The Jakobshavn, or Ilulissat, Icefjord is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a glistening highway of icebergs that stretches 37 miles (60 kilometers) from Ilulissat to the ice cap. The nearby Jakobshavn Glacier, which releases the back pressure of a vast area of the ice cap, has always been the fastest moving glacier in Greenland, producing nearly 10 percent of the island's icebergs. Each day slabs of ice more than a half mile high calve off its face, float down the fjord, and eventually drift out to sea. The fjord is extremely deep, except at its mouth, where an underwater terminal moraine creates areas as shallow as 650 feet (198 meters). Here the biggest icebergs grind to a halt, backing up flow in the fjord and transforming it into a glinting, stalled conveyor belt of ice.

Occasionally one of the giants topples over the moraine or breaks apart, sending a tsunami of frigid water against the black basalt shores of Disko Bay. Signs on the water's edge warn against deadly flash floods. Stories abound of people being swept out to sea.

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Adventure Guide: Greenland

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Our November 2006 issue features the best new adventure travel trips; an exclusive look inside Iran; a Greenland global warming report; backcountry spas; digital cameras; travel Web sites; weekend getaways; and more.

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