A cruise ship passes by the foot of Greenland s Eqi Glacier, one of the world s most active for calving icebergs. Greenland and its ice sheets are immense. The island spans 1,660 miles from north to south.
First of four parts
ILULISSAT, GREENLAND -- Beyond the howl of sled dogs echoing across this hilly coastal village is the thunderclap of ancient icebergs splitting apart, a deafening rumble you feel in your bones.
There's no mistaking its big, loud, and powerful boom, a sound that can work up to a crescendo like rolling thunder. Or be as sudden as a shotgun blast.
Lifelong Greenland resident Karen Jessen Tannajik said people who live in Ilulissat -- an Inuit word for icebergs -- notice more about what's been calved by the village's nearby Sermeq Kujalleq glacier than sights and sounds.
"Right now, they're coming out so quick. There are not so many big ones, but many small ones," she said with almost a spiritual reverence as she talked about the village's world-famous procession of icebergs.
"When I am tired, I can watch them and feel them and smell them," she said, pausing for a big breath of air to help make her point. "It seems like we get our power from them."
Sermeq Kujalleq is the largest glacier in the northern hemisphere that flows out to sea. The icebergs it calves float along a fjord that was recognized as one of the wonders of the world when it was added to the 2004 World Heritage List by the United Nations, which cited its natural history, geology, and beauty.
Although millions of people across the world still aren't convinced global warming exists or that it's as big a problem as scientists claim, symptoms of the planet's warming pop up everywhere in Greenland.
The summer fishing season is longer. Crops are being grown in areas never thought possible. Tourism is booming.
Interest in oil exploration and mining has hit a feverish pitch, with several "interesting" projects under way, including the possibility of aluminum smelters being built there to take advantage of the island's hydropower potential, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
A recent editorial in the Copenhagen Post said Greenland is "believed to be sitting on a mind boggling 10,000 billion kroner [nearly $2 trillion] worth of offshore oil reserves."
Even the island's first-ever craft brewery, Greenland Beer, is a product of global warming. The company markets the water it uses as purer than what is found in other parts of the world because it comes from melted inland ice formed thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution.
But Greenland's long-term problems from global warming will likely overshadow such short-term gains.
Karen Jessen Tannajik of Ilulissat says icebergs calved by the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier have been ‘coming out so quick. There are not so many big ones, but many small ones.’
A lack of sea ice has made winter passage between settlements more difficult, if not impossible. That's a huge problem because there are no roads between villages. Greenland is one of the only places on Earth that relies on sled dogs as a primary mode of transportation.
Fishing is Greenland's No. 1 industry. Mild winters, especially in Uummannaq on Greenland's west coast, have made it treacherous for residents to fish or hunt on what little ice there's been.
Greenland is the world's top producer of halibut and cold-water prawns, or shrimp. Halibut in particular have become more elusive, plunging to greater depths as the ocean temperature has warmed. Other species are moving in, but those gains are offset by the movement of whales toward the coast.
Whales have become so common near Ilulissat that two of the village's three tour operators began offering whale-watch excursions in 2007. Fishermen fear whales will act like vacuum cleaners, sucking down fish they want to catch.
Two leaders of the Ilulissat fishing community, Peter Olsen and Johanne Mathaussen, said the downward movement of halibut makes those fish more difficult and costly to catch. Full-sized halibut that used to be available at depths of about 1,000 feet now swim at depths of about 2,600 feet.
Another commercial fisherman, Gedion Lange, said long-line fishing he does with as many as 300 hooks at a time isn't as productive as it was in the 1990s.
Ove Rosbach, who has fished the Arctic for decades, blamed the decline on warmer ocean currents flowing to the north. He said a similar phenomenon occurred in the 1950s.
Halibut returned when the ocean current cooled in the 1970s, but Mr. Rosbach said things feel different now. "[Even] when the sun is not shining, it's still very warm," he said. "The sun is warmer than normal now."
Niels Kristensen, an Ilulissat municipal official, said many fishermen can no longer catch what their quota allows. "It's much more difficult because of the climate," he said.
Warming, cooling cycles
Greenland and its ice sheets are immense. The island spans 1,660 miles from north to south, longer than the distance from Maine to Cuba. From west to east, Greenland is 652 miles, just shy of the distance between Chicago and New York.
It is a fickle place. A Danish territory of 56,000 people, it has gone through extreme warming and cooling periods before.
Literature produced for visitors claims various cultures of Inuits have lived on Greenland for more than 4,500 years, although it also notes extensive periods in which the island had no inhabitants - usually when climatic conditions were so extremely cold there was little, if any, wildlife to hunt.
Legend has it the island got its name from a murderous Viking called Erik the Red, after he was ousted from Iceland about 950 A.D.
He reportedly put together a group of men to sail with him, with the lure of an island of lush greenery. That was more than 1,000 years ago, during the Medieval Warming Period - a climatic era that preceded the Little Ice Age and the island's modern ice sheet.
That ice sheet today is a hotbed for research as scientists from across the world study how the island is melting, sometimes with lakes appearing out of nowhere and the melt water vanishing suddenly through deep crevices known as moulins.
Greenland may be a harbinger of things to come, although it is second to Antarctica terms of ice.
Seventy-seven percent of the planet's fresh water is locked up in the ice sheets that cover Greenland and Antarctica, with about 70 percent of that in Antarctica. Ninety-eight percent of Antarctica is still covered by ice compared to Greenland's 80 percent.
Antarctica, the coldest and windiest place on Earth, is seven times the size of Greenland. It is less prone to melt. Portions of that continent's ice sheet are actually thickening, a reminder of how much more rugged the South Pole is than the North Pole. Antarctica has 250 days a year that are 50 degrees below zero or colder.
Ilulissat fishermen, from left, Ove Rosbach, Gedion Lange, Peter Olsen, and Johanne Mathaussen have confronted difficulties as the waters they fish off Greenland have warmed.
While politicians remain in a quandary over what to do about global warming, change is coming that will affect life everywhere from the Himalayan mountain range in Asia to the Great Lakes region of North America.
Peru's political instability is further threatened by changes in water flow as glaciers retreat in the central Andes mountains, resulting in less water for agriculture and hydroelectric power.
Southern Africa is expected to lose 30 percent of its staple food, corn, by 2030. As London-based journalist Gwynne Dyer noted in a column earlier this year: "No part of the developing world can lose one-third of its main food crop without descending into desperate poverty and violence."
And even if the most conservative estimate for sea level rise materializes - 1 meter, or about 3.3 feet of water by 2100 - low-lying regions of the South Pacific and South Asia will be flooded. The result could be a mass exodus of people from one of the poorest and most populated regions of the world.
America's Gulf Coast, the southern tip of Florida, and parts of the Atlantic seaboard would be submerged as well.
The prospect of mass flooding by the end of this century, though, has taken a back seat to more immediate changes in the Arctic Circle's northwest passage, especially with gasoline being sold in the United States between $3 and $4 a gallon.
Russia - second only to the Middle East in oil reserves - last year staked claim to the North Pole, where speculation about huge petroleum reserves runs rampant.
Once impassable to ships, the northwest passage has become a tug-of-war involving Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Greenland, and Iceland.
"The potential is there for an outbreak of tensions we have not seen since the Cold War days," said Rob Huebert, associate director of the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies.
The Arctic's warming climate has opened up the passageway to more than just oil tankers and cargo ships.
Oliver Pitras, 48, of Norway, said he has seen sailboat traffic on the rise. He sailed through the northwest passage in 1999 and is spending five months crossing it now at the helm of a yearlong sailing expedition he began taking around the world May 17 to raise global awareness of climate change. Details of his trip are at 69nord.com. "We're talking about the opening of a common route," he said. "But it's still a delicate situation."
Last year, several congressmen were stunned to learn that summer sea ice could be gone from the Arctic by 2015 - well ahead of the earlier projection of 2050, said Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard University's Center for the Environment.
Ilulissat is Greenland’s third-largest village. Each summer, it hosts dozens of researchers and hundreds of tourists
Changes to the Earth's climate are nothing new. Scientists believe natural climate variations occur every 100,000 years based on how the planet spins, tilts, and orbits around the sun.
The sun itself changes. NASA believes that volcanic eruptions on Earth, coupled with natural changes to the sun, explain warming and cooling from 1000 through 1850.
But the space agency also believes that Earth has been on a one-way warming trend triggered by human activity since the Industrial Revolution began about 1850.
Heat-trapping carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas, is on a course to exceed 500 parts per million in the atmosphere later this century, something the human race has never experienced, Mr. Schrag said.
An abundance of greenhouse gases means higher temperatures on land and in the oceans. The gases rise in the atmosphere and trap the sun's energy, keeping heat from escaping back into space.
A climate variation of 3 to 5 degrees "is a really big deal," considering that much of the Earth was covered in ice 18,000 years ago when the planet was only an average of 5 degrees cooler, Mr. Schrag said.
"We are performing an experiment at a planetary scale that hasn't been done for millions of years. No one knows exactly what will happen," he said.
Icebergs and pieces of icebergs cover much of the water near the ice cap, visible in the background, in northern Greenland.
The scientific consensus about climate change is based primarily around evidence of increasing air and ocean temperatures, accelerated melting of snow and ice at the polar ice caps, and rising ocean levels.
Records on global surface temperatures only go back to 1850. But the world's most prestigious body of climatologists - the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - noted in its landmark 2007 series of climate reports that the Earth's average temperatures for 11 of the 12 years from 1995 to 2006 were at or near record-high levels.
Those reports concluded there has been "unequivocal" warming of the planet and claimed with a certainty of greater than 90 percent that human activity was largely responsible. The data those reports used came, in part, from satellite images showing an accelerated loss of northern polar sea ice since 1978 and a rise in average sea levels since 1961 - accelerating after 1993.
About 600 scientists from 40 U.N. countries and the World Meteorological Organization were involved in producing those reports. Scientists directly involved with the panel's work shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore. Since losing the 2000 presidential race, Mr. Gore has given countless lectures across the country about global warming. He authored the book, An Inconvenient Truth, and won an Academy Award for the documentary based on it.
The greatest single source of human-generated carbon dioxide comes from coal-fired power plants. Other major contributors include factories and automobiles.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change findings were preceded by a 2001 report by America's most prestigious group of government scientists - the National Academy of Sciences - which stated explicitly that human activity has affected the Earth's climate. Similar statements have been issued by a consortium of 13 federal agencies called the U.S. Climate Change Science Program.
'A shared risk'
Ellen Mosley-Thompson of Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center said public officials and lobbyists have wasted valuable time disputing the science behind climate change.
She wonders how many naysayers would get into their automobiles without making some adjustments if they learned there was greater than a 90 percent chance they'd get in a wreck. "The difference is that [climate change] is a shared risk," she said.
People identify with symbols, but are they doing so at their own peril by dismissing climate change as some distant problem that just affects polar bears? Why aren't connections being made?
The cost of dealing with climate change is one reason.
Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain agree the United States must get more aggressive about controlling carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants but aren't sure whether a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade approach is best.
The Edison Electric Institute said it cannot quantify how much a carbon tax would drive up electric bills but said the cost would be "substantial." Under a cap-and-trade program, the government would place a limit on emissions and force utilities to barter for carbon credits with other utilities.
A matter of degree
Few Toledoans probably realize they live in the 41st Parallel North, meaning they are 41 degrees above the equator, or less than halfway to the North Pole. The effects of climate change are more acute near the relatively uninhabited poles, where average temperatures are rising twice as fast as they are near the equator.
Most Ilulissat residents know they're in the 69th Parallel North, which is 69 degrees above the equator and nearly two-thirds of the way to the North Pole. One of Ilulissat's soccer teams is named I-69, after the village's latitude.
Ilulissat is Greenland's third-largest village, with 4,500 people and just as many sled dogs. Each summer, it hosts dozens of researchers and hundreds of tourists. Many of the latter see Greenland's famous Eqi glacier breaking off into seawater from the comfort of luxury cruise ships.
Influential U.S. lawmakers, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), have recently stayed in the village's posh Hotel Arctic, as have celebrities such as pop singer Bjork and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. The hotel is in the midst of doubling in size.
Regardless where they stay, nearly everyone who visits Ilulissat seems to have a feeling of suspended reality when they open their hotel blinds each morning.
Almost without fail, the icebergs they saw the night before have been replaced by new ones.
How can such massive hunks of ice come and go so fast? After all, they were formed from thousands of years of compressed snow. And they look harder to budge than skyscrapers.
But it happens. The frequency that the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier calved icebergs over the past decade rose, throwing some of the world's top Greenland experts for a loop.
One of them is Swiss-born Konrad "Koni" Steffen of the University of Colorado. He has done field work in the Arctic since 1975 and on Greenland's ice sheet at least once every year since 1990. His work is cited in major publications. He is at the table of most major climate talks.
Conventional wisdom during the 1970s was that Greenland's ice sheet would take thousands of years to melt.
"Nobody would have predicted 10 to 15 years ago that Greenland would lose ice that fast," Mr. Steffen said. "That revises all of the textbooks."
His take-home message: Forget the scientific modeling. Greenland is melting faster than anyone's best guess.
"How can you have an ice sheet so big and respond that quickly?" he asked. "That is still part of the mystery, to be honest."
Ohio State's Jason Box is perhaps the most famous of Mr. Steffen's former students, having done research in Greenland every summer except one since 1994.
Mr. Box has likewise gained attention from the national media for his work. He synthesizes data he and others generate into a "holistic" view of Greenland's thaw, using a number of tools, including time-lapse photography.
A costly problem
Americans may fret about paying more for electricity if the next Congress enacts a carbon tax or strict regulations on utilities to combat global warming. But Mr. Box said that cost will be a fraction of what adapting to climate change will cost, especially if nothing's done to curb emissions now.
Billions of dollars will be needed to construct New Orleans-like levees along the nation's coastline to guard against flooding, he said.
"It's going to get too expensive for the U.S. to mitigate," Mr. Box said. "It's going to be kind of like taking on a global war against terrorism. It's going to be too expensive. It's going to sap the U.S. economy."
Sea level rise is "going to cost people whether their properties are flooded or not," he said.
On average, Greenland's ice sheet loses 300 billion tons of ice a year. That hasn't been enough to raise global sea level a millimeter a year, though.
The Greenland ice sheet has been eroding almost annually for 50 years, except for a short period in the 1970s when temperatures were cool enough in summer to keep it "in balance" by rejuvenating itself enough in winter.
But the greatest ice losses on record are recent - in 2003, 2005, and 2007, Mr. Box said.
In Alaska, coastal villages are eroding. Long stretches of highway are impassable for months at a time because they were built on permafrost that is melting.
One of the most impacted villages, Newtok (population 400), was told in June that it will get $3.3 million in state aid to help relocate displaced residents to higher ground.
Alaska is putting aside nearly $13 million to protect six remote villages in the coming year. That could only be the beginning of a massive tab for taxpayers. According to the Government Accountability Office, erosion and flooding affect 184 of Alaska's 213 native villages to some degree.
In Greenland, Ilulissat's soccer field is slumping because of permafrost melt. Tourists hiking marked trails to see the village's famous glacier feel the spongy soil.
During the Republican National Convention, TV crews aired sound bytes from delegates who said they'll leave the Earth's climate in God's hands.
"It's actually not a faith issue but whether or not you believe in the science. In its purest form [climate change] is objective science," Mr. Box said. "The ice in the Arctic is the canary in the coal mine. To put it bluntly, the canary is dead."