A few days ago, my advisor called my satellite phone to let me know that in early July, something like 98 percent of the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet was melting at once, or, as the media put it, “The entire Greenland Ice Sheet melted.” Although the Greenland Ice Sheet is still there, this year’s melting will be something to remember.
During last year's melt season, Leverett Glacier’s catchment area probably lost about one-third as much ice as what is currently melting this summer. Despite the relatively cold melt season in West Greenland in 2011, more ice was lost than gained over the course of the year. This year, it seems obvious that much more ice will be melted from the ice sheet than will form.
I’ve now heard that according to ice core records, epic melting years like this one seem to occur in Greenland about every 150 years or so. I’m sure back home there will be much debate about whether this year’s high melt was part of a natural cycle or if it is yet another symptom of global warming. The answer to that question doesn’t actually matter. The fact remains that during this year, like every other year in the past decade, more ice will be lost than created. It’s the trend that matters and this year’s melting will accentuate the ice-loss trend. I think it’s safe to say that at this point, it would take decades of cold, snowy weather to reverse course in Greenland.
End of the Season
Hues of gold and brown are growing in the hills everyday. The grass is gold and brittle, but patches of willow are still green. Nights are getting darker—a few nights ago I turned my flashlight on for the first time since early May. Though it’s only the end of July, fall is coming and things are starting to calm down.
Ice melt discharge and chemistry are changing gently and gradually throughout each day, in synch with the sun rising and falling as it circles our arctic camp. It’s been several weeks since the river was going up and down by several meters a day. The river is still about twice the size it was in previous seasons, but its violent mood swings of early July are over. It’s become relatively predictable and taciturn. We suspect peak ice melt is over.
The mosquitoes are finally gone. For several days, we’ve left our tent doors open and have sat outside during lunch. Windy days and nights have given way to warm gentle breezes in the day and cool nights, perfect sleeping weather. Every night I slide further into my sleeping bag.
Andrew Tedstone left camp after spending 83 days here (with 1 day in town several months ago). The evening he got to town he sent a text message saying that he’d taken a shower so long it "could’ve drained a lake." If anyone deserved a hot shower it was Andrew. He’d opened up camp back in the cold of April.
I’ve lived in this tent for six of the last 15 months, and I’ve been away from home for seven. When I pull out of camp I’ll have slept here for 181 nights over the past two field seasons (not that I’m counting). It definitely feels like it’s time to go home. I’ve run out of coffee and my peanut butter stash has been gone for a month. But now that my last week in camp has come, I’ve become more thoughtful and nostalgic. I ran up to the ice sheet one last time. I walked most of the way and left my watch in my tent—I wanted to take my time. I hated thinking it might be the last time I got to do that run. Tundra running on musk ox trails is something I’ll never forget.
A Man Called Mule
A hurricane was blowing outside my tent. I shuffled around, picking up gear and cramming it into my backpacks looking nervously at my tent walls, hoping they would hold against the wind. Dust and sand rained in through the mosquito mesh windows under the roof.
The rain quit the day I broke camp. I rose early, took my last sample and spent the morning drying my tent and organizing my final pack loads. Mauro Werder of Simon Frazer University filled his bag with the last of my gear and together we hiked to the river crossing. As we approached the end I could hardly talk, my brain was too distracted by my bruised shoulders, hips, and back. Every misstep sent my back into spasms. At the crossing we began moving the ten stashed crates to the boat, a job in itself that took two hours and about a mile and a half of back-and-forth walking. We were low on drinking water and it was hot.
Finally ready to cross, I pulled on a dry suit and threw a couple of bags into the boat. Mauro worked the rope system to pull me over. Now the hard part: each crate had to be loaded into our little inflatable boat, pulled across the river, lifted out of the boat, and then hiked up and over a steep hill of rock. It took an hour just to move the crates across the river and stack them. Just as my arms started cramping up, and dehydration headaches were setting in, I pulled Mauro across. Together we carried each crate and bag over a rock hill rock where they were finally set down on the flat gravel bed at the road’s end. By now it was late in the afternoon, the sun was hot, and we’d only had a liter of water each. Being much tougher and tenacious than me, Mauro was still telling jokes.
“Good job Ben, you moved the crates a whole 100 meters!” he said, pointing across the river to where the crates were in the morning.
He grabbed my bottle, walked to the river and filled it with ice chunks floating through the sandy glacial meltwater. They soon melted and we sat down for a sip of water and stared at the short distance we’d taken six hours to move the crates. We shook hands and I promised him a few pints at the next glaciology conference.
Finally, I packed a small daypack, found our team’s stashed mountain bike and rode the sandy, rocky road into town. The next day, I rented a truck and brought everything back to town, where it was inventoried and weighed. Eight hundred pounds of gear had been hiked out in a week.
One thing about fieldwork is that it’s almost impossible to do on your own. Everyone needs help. As such, fieldwork tends to operate on a pay-it-forward basis. That being the case, I’m hopelessly in debt to a long list of people.
The Value of Wilderness
Next time you take a flight, look out the window. What do you see? Are there vast tracts of wilderness, old-growth forests munching away at CO2 through photosynthesis? Or have people changed the landscape everywhere you look? If you fly from New York to Los Angeles, how much of the land is covered in old growth forest and how much of it has been cleared for farms, roads and towns? Ask yourself why, if we can change the land so much, why not the climate?
The truth is, there is not much wilderness left on Earth, and by definition, the vast majority of people have never been in true wilderness. Why would it be important to leave the last wild places around the world alone? Rainforests clearly deserve conservation; their value as the lungs of our planet is obvious. But what about places like the Arctic Ocean or northern Alaska, where few people will ever see or visit?
For the few that do make it into true wilderness the experience is hard to put into words. The beauty of a place that people have mostly left alone surpasses anything manmade. In the wild, one feels reconnected to the world in a way impossible to get at home. It could be the vulnerability one experiences, the feeling that no help is coming if you make a mistake, or that, while in the wilderness, one becomes dependent on wits and gumption. Perhaps it’s a chance for us to go back to a more natural state of living.
I think it’s best to think of the world’s last wild places as a bank account, one that we’ve almost spent dry. Think of our generation as blowing through a vast fortune, one that took many generations to build. The problem with our bank account is that since we’ve spent most of it, the return on the interest rate is now so low that it’s going to take a long time to build our fortune back.
How do we spend out of our wilderness bank account? I think it’s fair to say that every time we buy a new phone, computer, or drive a car we are spending from this account. I had a geology professor who used to say, “Everything comes from mining.” He was right. Look around you, everything you use was dug out of the earth or cut down. When you see a new computer, try to imagine the strip mine the copper came from. We have fair-trade coffee and coffee that’s grown in a more sustainable way, but when we buy a new computer, there is no way of knowing how or where the raw materials were mined. There are maps showing where most of the world’s remaining untapped resources are. When there is more demand for copper, someone is going to go to a spot in the wilderness and dig it out.
Now we are faced with two options: we can spend what’s left in our account, show off our sweet new touch-screen phone, or we can conserve what’s left and try to accumulate more worth.
I opened my eyes and it was dark. Slowly, I rolled over, swung my legs off the bed and sat up. The air smelled of worn-out socks, dirt, and clean, soft sheets. Everything hurt. My hands felt like they were made of old wood and my forearms ached when I moved my fingers. My knees were swollen and my shoulders and hips were covered in bruises. Standing up was a challenge, my back throbbed. I pulled the blackout curtains off the window and light flooded into the hotel room. Dusty, ripped backpacks and sleeping bags, some filthy clothes and a guitar were spread everywhere. I should’ve known Greenland wouldn't let me go quietly.
More photos are available on the Following the Ice Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Following-the-Ice-by-Ben-Linhoff/329814200387961), as well as links to more of Ben's writing.
Previously in this series: