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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 Greg Von Doersten

Photo: Kayaking Greenland
QUIET CATASTROPHE: Kayakers explore the bays of Greenland's southwest coast, where warming temperatures have reduced permanent sea ice.

Standing naked on Greenland's mile-thick (2-kilometer-thick) ice sheet during a katabatic windstorm may be the only way to preserve doubts about global warming these days. My mind registers what climatologist Konrad Steffen, Ph.D.—also naked—is saying as he dances to keep himself warm.

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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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Sure, I don't doubt that the average temperature on the ice cap rose four degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius) in the past decade, making this the fastest warming place on Earth. But my body, shivering and contracting in dangerous and humiliating ways, is unconvinced. Global warming? It's cold as hell out here, and all I really want to do is dive back into the research station's plywood sauna and have a nip of whiskey.

But the professor has me transfixed. Maybe it's his stoic, Swiss-German demeanor and the fact that the guy, with his furrowed brow and heavy beard, looks like he was born in a meat locker. Or maybe it's the stories his students told me about how this 54-year-old scientist once spent time stranded on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean and skinned a polar bear with a Swiss army knife. Or maybe it's just that the heat is racing out of my body so fast that I feel like an injured arctic fox that's wandered out alone into this blinking whiteness. It's over, I think, as Steffen chatters on about barometric isotopes and nonlinear systems. I'm freezing to death out here.

When the professor is not heading up the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he spends his time here, at Swiss Camp. The collection of three permanently affixed tents and an atrium (that doubles as a sauna) sits 3.5 degrees north of the Arctic Circle. To the west lies a pristine icefield dotted with dozens of poles carrying all manner of monitoring equipment, from radio spectrometers that measure light reflectivity to seismic stations that listen for icequakes, tremors caused by glacial-ice movement. During the late summer melt season, the camp lies abandoned and fills with frigid water. But each spring the scientists return and have to chisel out their work space from solid ice.

Since Steffen established Swiss Camp 16 years ago, much has changed. Global warming has evolved from an obscure concern of environmentalists to a headline-grabbing motion picture–inspiring crisis of staggering proportions. Due to something called the polar amplification effect, Greenland is heating up at an exponential rate and has become a kind of barometer for the rest of the planet. What happens here in the next ten years will answer key questions about how much the Earth will warm in the next hundred. That is why there were more scientists out on the ice this year than ever before—the United States' National Science Foundation alone helped fund 144 researchers, three times as many as in 2000. They're all scrambling to track the tremendous changes while working against the narrowing window between winter storms and a melt season that turns the cap into a slush field mined with scientist-swallowing crevasses.

But researchers aren't the only ones swarming the ice. Adventurers and explorers, lured by a sinking feeling that the ice may one day disappear, are traveling here to kayak Greenland's stunning fjords, cruise its iceberg-clogged bays, and make the classic 300-mile (483-kilometer) trek across its cap. This year, skiers, snow kiters, and mountain bikers made the traverse—often crossing paths with frantic researchers. The Danish Polar Center, which issues permits for venturing onto the inland ice, reports that the number of approved sport-expedition applications has nearly doubled since last year, from 38 to 67.

To understand the full effects of climate change, however, you have to look beyond scientists and snow kiters. The entire island of Greenland, one of the wildest places in the Northern Hemisphere, is being transformed perceptibly and permanently by warming temperatures. Outlet glaciers—where the ice cap spills off the edge of the island—are disgorging more and more icebergs into the bays and fjords of Greenland (20 billion tons a year, at last count). Warming ocean currents and air temperatures have eliminated permanent winter sea ice in the large bays. And as Steffen explains after we drop back into the sauna for a round of whiskey with his fellow researchers, this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. With a matter-of-fact tone, Steffen recites a litany of events that are altering Greenland irrevocably and sparking climate change globally:

Disappearing sea ice around the edge of the island is causing air temperatures to rise, which means that the semipermanent high-pressure system that forms over Greenland every winter is disappearing, bringing fog, snow, and unstable weather. This, in turn, brings more rain in the spring, which causes more melting of the ice cap, which creates a higher concentration of freshwater in the ocean, which disrupts the cold-water currents and brings more warm water to the bays, which breaks up more sea ice...and so it goes in an ever warming circle.

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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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