Incredible Shrinking Glacier
By Agence France
29 September, 2004
Agence France Presse
Residents of Ilulissat, the town on Greenland's
western coast famed for the majestic icebergs that glide through its
icefjord, nearly choked on their morning coffee as they read the news:
the town's biggest attraction was melting away.
The Groenlands Posten newspaper sent locals into a tizzy when a few
weeks ago it described how the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, one of the most
active glaciers in the world, had receded by more than five kilometers
(three miles) in the past two years.
"There is a
risk that the glacier will stop calving into the icefjord," it
said, using the term which normally describes a cow giving birth but
is also used by scientists to describe how a piece of a glacier breaks
off and forms an iceberg.
The chilling news
came just two months after UNESCO placed the Ilulissat Icefjord on the
World Heritage List.
of a huge ice-sheet and the dramatic sounds of a fast-moving glacial
ice-stream calving into a fjord covered by icebergs makes for a dramatic
and awe-inspiring natural phenomenon," the UN's cultural body said.
The Ilulissat Icefjord
"is an outstanding example of a stage in the Earths history: the
last ice age of the Quaternary Period". The glacier is one of only
a few whose ice cap reaches all the way down to the sea, with more than
35 cubic kilometers of ice cascading down the ice sheet into the ice-choked
fjord each year.
Located 250 kilometers
(155 miles) north of the Arctic Circle, Ilulissat is home to 5,000 people,
most of whom live off shrimp and halibut fishing as well as the all-important
Some 15,000 tourists
visit the town each year, or about half of all those who visit Greenland.
In addition, 235 luxury cruiseboats laden with tourists docked on the
island this summer, carrying thousands of people keen to experience
the dramatic sights and sounds of the moving ice.
"I hope this
isn't true, that the glacier is not sleeping ... The tourists come here
just to see the magic spectacle of the icebergs," says Anton, who
works at a local hotel.
were able to ease islanders' fears somewhat. They said that despite
fears of dramatic climate change due to global warming, it was unlikely
that Ilulissat would become a "quiet" glacier, behaving like
most of the others in the world.
has receded a lot since 2002, which is very surprising and new since
it had been relatively stable, almost unchanged since the 1950s,"
glacier expert Henrik Hoejmark Thomsen of the Geological Survey of Denmark
and Greenland told AFP.
taken in 2003 showed that the glacier had regressed by five to seven
kilometers, a shrinkage which has continued according to observations
made by hunters and helicopter pilots who have flown over the region
is no danger that the glacier will stop producing iceslides, even if
it recedes, Thomsen said.
and expansion of the glacier is not an exceptional phenomenon. In 1860,
it reached the middle of the Ilulissat Icefjord, and 5,000 years before
that it had receded by 20 kilometers," he said.
In the meantime,
tourist boats will continue to sail through the fjord, maneuvring carefully
between the icebergs.
On this day, a few
awestruck tourists ask the captain to steer their boat closer to an
iceberg, only to hear his ominous warning: "The icebergs may look
calm, but they can crack suddenly and create huge waves, and you won't
have a chance. Remember the Titanic."
© 2004 AFP