Travels in Greenland: Impacts of Global Warming

By RA Secretary Susan Mead

My husband and I had the opportunity to travel to Greenland in June of this year.  We contacted a local native Inuit guide, Adam Lyberth, to take us on a tour of Greenland’s ice sheet near the town of Kangerlussuaq in West Greenland.  Based on his client list, which has included Hillary Clinton, Warren Buffet and Leonardo DiCaprio, we figured we would get an up close and personal look at how global warming is impacting his country.

Greenland is the largest island in the world, roughly one-fifth the size of the United States. Its ice sheet is one of only two in the world (the other one being Antarctica) and covers roughly 80% of the island.  If the entire ice sheet melted sea levels around the world would rise by 20 feet.

We drove 25 km along Greenland’s longest road from Kangerlussuaq until its termination at the ice sheet.  En route, Adam showed us many examples of the changing landscape resulting from global warming.  In one lake, he showed us some unique spherical-shaped algae found only in that lake and one other place on Earth. The lake is disappearing due to evaporation from the warming air temperature. Winds are consistently higher than historical averages. In fact, it was blowing so hard at the front of the ice sheet that we were not able to go up and walk around on it. This wind results from the temperature differential between the ice and the surrounding air.

In the past three years, the average air temperature in this part of Greenland has risen 7 degrees Celsius. There has also been a 30% loss of the ice mass in 3 years at the front of Russell Glacier. Along the Russell glacier front, we watched for calving events, which are occurring more often and earlier each year that Adam has been documenting the area with photos.  He pointed to a moraine soaring higher than the top of the ice sheet, which only a few years ago was hidden behind it.

Impacts to wildlife include a change in where caribou can find the vegetation with proper nutrients to raise their calves, as it has shifted northward.  There is also a higher rate of observed rabies outbreaks, which can affect Arctic foxes and musk ox.  The native Greenland white-fronted goose has been nearly extirpated as Canada geese have arrived on the landscape.

There are some advantages to increasing temperatures in Greenland.  Wildlife has more to eat due to the longer growing season. Additionally, locals can harvest the nutrient-rich mud that is being sloughed off of the ice where it is melting.

We asked Adam outright, “Can we reverse climate change?”  His response:  “Absolutely not.”  The evidence against is just too compelling in his home landscape next to the ice.

Hopefully, by reading about this unique and dramatically changing area of the world, it will motivate you to lessen your personal impacts towards global warming and encourage our legislators to continue pursuing cleaner, renewable energy sources in hopes of slowing the melt rate of the only ice sheet in the Northern Hemisphere.

“Think globally, act locally.”