Earth’s Future Being Written in Fast-Melting Greenland

    27 August, 2019

    Ocean scientist David Holland calls Greenland "the end of the planet."

    The New York University professor is mostly talking about Greenland's location in the North Atlantic. But in many ways, it is where the planet's future is being written.

    Holland spoke with The Associated Press during his recent visit to the world's largest island. The ice he was standing on is thousands of years old. It will be gone within two years, adding more water to already rising seas around the world.

    Summer this year is hitting Greenland hard, with record-setting heat and melting ice. By the end of the summer, more than 400 billion metric tons of ice will have melted or broken off from Greenland's huge ice sheet, scientists estimate. That is enough water to cover the nation of Greece about 35 centimeters deep.

    Among the most affected places is Helheim, one of Greenland's fastest-shrinking glaciers. It sits on the southern edge of the island. It has shrunk 10 kilometers since scientists first measured it in 2005.

    In this Aug. 16, 2019, photo, a woman stands next to an antenna at an NYU base camp at the Helheim glacier in Greenland.
    In this Aug. 16, 2019, photo, a woman stands next to an antenna at an NYU base camp at the Helheim glacier in Greenland.

    Many researchers say what is happening is a combination of man-made climate change and natural, but strange weather events. Glaciers here always shrink in the summer and grow in the winter.

    This year is coming near, but not yet passing the extreme summer of 2012. that is Greenland's worst year in modern history for melting, scientists report.

    Ruth Mottram is a Danish climate scientist. She said nearly all of the 28 Greenland glaciers she is measuring are shrinking, especially Helheim. At Helheim, the ice, snow and water seem endless. The only thing that gives a sense of Helheim's massive size is the helicopter carrying Holland and his team. It looks like a small red mark against the glacier's 70-meter-tall ice cliffs.

    Just next to the cliffs are what remains of Helheim's sea ice, snow and icebergs. These remnants create a mostly white expanse, with a mix of shapes. But in some places, bright-blue water forms on the surface.

    The helicopter's pilot, Martin Norregaard, looks for ice covered with dirt. That tells him the ice is firm enough for the helicopter to land on. Pure white ice could hide a deep hole that would lead to a cold and deadly dive.

    Holland and his team climb out of the helicopter and set up equipment that lets researchers follow Helheim's movements over time. Such efforts also may help them better understand why salty, warm ocean water attacking the underside of the glacier has been rising to the surface.

    "It takes a really long time to grow an ice sheet, thousands and thousands of years, but they can be broken up or destroyed quite rapidly," Holland said.

    The small town of Kulusuk is a 40-minute helicopter ride away from Helheim. Mugu Utuaq lives in Kulusuk. He says winter weather there used to last as long as 10 months when he was a boy. Now, winter can be as short as five months. That matters to Utuaq. He is among the top dogsledders in Greenland. And he needs hard ice to race his 23 dogs.

    "People are getting rid of their dogs because there's no season," said another local man, Yewlin. He used to run a sled dog team for tourists at a hotel in nearby Tasiilaq. But that is no longer possible.

    The melting glaciers and warmer weather are noticeable, said Kulusuk Mayor Justus Paulsen. The 58-year-old added that his home is much different from his childhood.

    That is not necessarily a bad thing for Paulsen. "We like it because we like to have a summer."

    But scientists like Holland who study glaciers see the bigger picture. It is not good news, Holland said. Not for Kulusuk. And not for Earth in general.

    "It's kind of nice to have a planet with glaciers around," Holland said.

    I'm Ashley Thompson.

    The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    location - n. a place or position

    cliff - n. a high, steep surface of rock, earth, or ice

    rapidly - adv. happening in a short amount of time

    get rid of - phrasal verb. to do something so that you no longer have or are affected or bothered by

    tourist - n. a person who travels to a place for pleasure