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 user 2005-08-15 at 7:31:00 am Views: 85
  • #12584
    vanishing ice
    why greenland’s changing landscape is causing concern
    Greenland turns green

    Greenland’s ice is melting rapidly. In some places, glacial levels have
    been falling by 10 metres a year and ultimately contributing to rising sea
    levels. Travelling to Greenland, Richard Hollingham sees the impact of climate
    change for himself.

    The gleaming white executive jet taxied to a stop on the cracked concrete
    apron beside a couple of derelict hangers.

    Beyond the rusty barbed wire and crude prefabricated buildings surrounding
    the airport perimeter, cliffs of dark granite rose from the valley to blend with
    the equally ominous grey of the sky.

    No trees, no colour, no signs of life.

    The door of the private plane swung down.

    Onlookers, had there been any, might have caught a glimpse of the deep
    leather seats and walnut panelling of the interior.

    Perhaps a group of sharp suited executives would emerge looking dynamic and
    business-like. Or perhaps some sinister men-in-black types, here on covert
    government business.

    The first person to climb down was wearing oversized shorts, stout walking
    boots and a hat that looked like it had seen rather more of the world than it
    was perhaps designed for.

    Its enormous ice cap, a sea of white stretching
    seemingly forever, overflows into thousands of glaciers

    The next man was dressed in a clashing array of outdoor clothing
    and sported large tortoise-shell glasses and an unkempt beard.

    Each man muttered something about the landscape being bleak.

    I would like to be able to tell you that when the BBC descended from the
    plane we stood apart with our sartorial elegance.

    But if you have ever met any BBC types, particularly radio reporters, you
    would know that would be a lie.


    We had landed at Kangerlussuaq, a community whose existence
    depends solely on the airstrip.

    This used to be a bustling US base, servicing America’s early warning system.

    These days it is somewhat self perpetuating. The airport brings in supplies
    for the people who live here who mostly work at the airport.

    I was tagging along with a group of eminent scientists, funded through the
    foundation of a billionaire philanthropist, Gary Comer. He has devoted his
    retirement to the science of global warming.

    The researchers all make regular visits to the Arctic to assess the impact of
    climate change, not, it should be said, always in such comfort.

    Retreating glaciers

    Greenland is a massive island locked in ice. And from the air
    there is little evidence that it is melting.

    Its enormous ice cap, a sea of white stretching seemingly forever, overflows
    into thousands of glaciers.

    These in turn carve their way through the mountains to the coast.

    It is only when you get near to the base of the glaciers that you can see how
    the landscape is changing.

    A few metres above the ice, the rock is totally bare. A scar running
    horizontally across the valleys.

    It is as if the ice has been drained away, like water in a bath, to leave a
    tide mark. Which is, in effect, what has happened.

    The ice has melted and the glaciers have retreated hundreds of metres over
    the past 150 years.

    New vegetation

    The weather cleared and with the edge of the glacier, a giant wall of ice
    behind us, glaciologist Richard Alley led me across the barren rock.

    This land was being exposed for the first time in
    millions of years

    As I tripped and stumbled behind him, he bounded through scree and
    leapt over crevasses.

    I have never seen a scientist more in his element as he pointed out deep
    grooves in the rock where the ice had raked the stone, or the giant boulders
    lifted by the glacier to balance precariously on top of tiny pebbles.

    This land was being exposed for the first time for millions of years. Even a
    century ago, where I stood would have been solid ice, and I was struck by just
    how much vegetation there was.

    Phillip, the biologist on the trip, was every bit as excited as Richard,
    identifying the dark brown lichens on the rocks, the grasses and beautiful
    purple flowers somehow managing to cling to just a few millimetres of soil.

    Agricultural return

    The Earth’s climate has warmed before, albeit naturally.

    A ruined church on the banks of a fjord marks the remains of a Viking farming

    The sun casts shadows through the arched window to the site of the altar,
    last used in the 1400s before the area was abandoned when it became too cold to
    support habitation.

    Today, the farmers are back.

    Sheep once again graze the surrounding hillside and shiny new tractors work
    the fields near the southern coast.

    Greenland is turning green, something the rest of us should be very worried
    about indeed.