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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 Pal Hermansen

Photo: Ice cap
GREENLANDS'S NEW LOOK: The Greenland ice cap disgorges thousands of icebergs into the Atlantic Ocean each year.

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Adventure Guide: Greenland

Satellite Tour:
Complete Meltdown

Get a global perspective on the rising temperatures with NASA's "Tour of the Cryosphere," a satellite-data animation that soars from Pole to Pole.

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The Jakobshavn Icefjord is one of the most beautiful places in the world. But its future is now in question. Since 1992 the tongue of the glacier has retreated 4.6 miles (7 kilometers). Warm ocean currents seeping into the fjord are causing the icebergs to melt and break up at a faster rate, which unleashes a greater volume of ice into Disko Bay. As a result, the fjord is now jam-packed with ice. After the tour boat passes a particularly large frozen specimen, a passenger repeats the local lore that a berg from Disko Bay was probably responsible for sinking the Titanic.
People laugh uneasily when I ask about kayaking around the ice fjord. The danger posed by calving ice is too great, they say. So I heed their advice and head down to Aasiaat, a small settlement at the mouth of Disko Bay that is opportunely positioned for some of Greenland's best paddling. The islands here are long and narrow, with channels that afford favorable winds and very little wave action:

It's not uncommon to ride a tailwind for miles—hundreds of miles—through an uninhabited landscape.

Having only kayaked once before (near a sunny Mediterranean beach), I hire a local guide named Mikael Jacobsen to take me on a three-day journey around the islands off Aasiaat. Jacobsen, 37, is a former Danish triathlete and Greenlandic kayaking champion. As he loads the kayaks with filets of musk ox and reindeer that he hunted closer to the mainland, he squints knowingly at the wind and cold. Small icebergs dot the surface of the black shimmering water. Belugas and narwhals can be seen rising in the distance. As we push off from the shore into the 30-degree (-1-degree Celsius) water amid a heavy, mid-May snowfall, I ask him to go easy on me.

"We see a lot more icebergs in and around Aasiaat now," Jacobsen muses as we settle into a relaxed rhythm of paddling. The hyper-oxygenated ice of the bergs glows blue in the water. I want to get up close to one and peer down at its bulk—seven-eighths of its total mass, experts say. But Jacobsen cautions me. Icebergs, he says, are extremely unstable. You never know when a piece of one might cleave away and drop on top of you or when the entire thing might topple over on its side and send up a sharp, steep wave that can flip a kayak like a coin.
"Or sometimes ice just shoots out, going completely through a boat," he says. "That's the worst thing that can happen to a kayak." And then he tilts his head back and makes a chortling sound in the back of his throat, which I understand is the best the human voice can do to approximate the sound of sharp, million-year-old ice shearing through the side of a kayak.

As the brightly painted village of Aasiaat disappears in the distance, we enter the quiet of the fjords. Bare basalt shores hem the waters like dark blankets, a showcase for an array of birds and the occasional arctic fox. Jacobsen's boat, an authentic canvas-covered Greenlandic kayak, cuts the water like a loon. This style of craft—long, narrow, finely ribbed—was invented here by the Greenlanders, and it shuns any association with its tubby plastic cousins that ply American rivers and bays.

Jacobsen continues to chat, sometimes across 200 yards (183 meters) of silent water, about how life has changed in Aasiaat along with the weather. He points to the snow, which is falling thickly now. Years ago it would have been sunny at this time of year, he says. (The recent snowfalls in this area have been so consistent, in fact, that a heli-skiing industry has taken root on the west coast and on rugged Disko Island in the distance.)

To make his case for climate change, Jacobsen could have drawn my attention to just about anything: Polar bears are less able to hunt seals on the ice here and have moved northward; walrus, meanwhile, which love the rocky shores, are thriving. Narwhals are less numerous, killer whales more abundant. Life here is in flux. The only constant in this brave new era of astronomical carbon dioxide levels, as far as Greenland is concerned, is change and abnormality.

Three days in the fjords passes quickly. We visit Akunnaaq, a small settlement of 50 houses that clings to the edge of the rock about 15 miles (24 kilometers) from Aasiaat, and sleep on the floor of its community center. A thick, almost milky snow falls as we trudge uphill to visit the only tourist site: a small cemetery of austere white crosses overlooking the sound. Snow continues to fall the next day, and the next. At one point I fall into the water up to my knees trying to get into my kayak. At near-freezing temperatures, it burns the skin instead of chilling it. An arctic fox looks on from across the channel, unimpressed.

On the way back to Aasiaat, Jacobsen waves his hands toward the shore where a group of five mallard ducks coasts through the twirling snow. The kayaks move soundlessly, pushed by a light wind. Such sublimity makes it difficult to understand the global catastrophe brewing here. The disappearing sea ice, the four-degree rise in temperature, and the retreating Jakobshavn Glacier all seem very distant.

"When I moved here 11 years ago we never saw mallards," Jacobsen says, silently dipping the narrow oarlike tip of his Greenlandic paddle into the water, as if he were sneaking up on a seal. Mallards are southern, Canadian birds. All but southernmost Greenland has always been too cold for them. "Now we see them all the time," he says, smiling. "I kind of like them."

Back on the ice cap, things are heating up. Literally. Climatologist Konrad Steffen—fully clothed now—is trying to reestablish a weather station called JAR2, which has been incapacitated by melting ice. So much of it has vanished from beneath the station that its measurements of snow and ice depth are now completely inaccurate. To reset the station, Steffen needs to drill a hole 22 feet (7 meters) deep into solid ice. But every time he gets down 10 or 15 feet (3 or 5 meters), the drill finds a void caused, in part, by warming temperatures. It's frustrating work, and I swear I can hear Steffen curse the oil companies every time he has to restart the drill.

Early that morning the professor set out alone on a snowmobile, armed with a sleeping bag, a pack of Marlboros, and an Iridium satellite phone, to scout a path through the crevasse field between Swiss Camp and the weather
station. JAR2 is uniquely positioned in the Jakobshavn Ablation Region (JAR), a jumbled and dangerous landscape that marks the point where the ice cap begins breaking apart and sliding, or ablating, into the Jakobshavn Glacier (and, eventually, splashing the shores of Ilulissat and drifting past kayakers near Aasiaat).

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Adventure Guide: Greenland

Cover: Adventure magazine

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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