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Published: Sunday, 7/27/2008

Stunning landscapes offer view of beauty, vulnerability

Blade environmental writer Tom Henry is in Greenland doing research for an upcoming special report on climate change.

ILULISSAT, GREENLAND - We looked right. We looked left.

Emilie Guegan and I couldn't help keep our eyes from darting to windows on either side of us as we were packed shoulder-to-shoulder with about a dozen other people aboard a tiny aircraft along Greenland's spectacular western shoreline Wednesday.

We looked in one direction and saw vast mountains of rock. We looked in another and saw Greenland's incredible ice sheet.

Our jaws dropped no matter which way we looked. We felt so alive, so pumped up, and so breathless.

Nature had invigorated us.

Emilie, a geologist from France, was eager to make every second count on our 45-minute connecting flight to Ilulissat from Kangerlussuaq, a former U.S. military base in southern Greenland that has been the island's main point of entry.

Ilulissat is a village of 4,500 people in northern Greenland that's 185 miles above the Arctic Circle. It is Greenland's third-largest community but, more importantly, it is a hub for scientists doing field work in one of the Earth's most important regions for unraveling the mysteries of climate change.

As the adrenalin kicked in and my senses were awakened by a caffeine-like jolt despite the fact I hadn't slept for what seemed like days, I took a moment to reflect about the sights below.

What makes Greenland, Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and - yes - even the Great Lakes region so exhilarating to some of us is not just their beautiful ruggedness, their seemingly invincible side - but also the knowledge they are more fragile than they seem at face value.

Just like humans. Tough and vulnerable. But resilient.

I couldn't shake the thought that perhaps - just maybe - our brains are hard-wired to appreciate the most majestic places on Earth not just because they look so amazing. But also because we see a little of ourselves in them.

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Chris Korleski has stated that climate change is becoming one of the biggest stories of our lifetimes. Whether you agree or not, have an open mind about the issue.

On Tuesday night, I had dinner at an outdoor cafe in Copenhagen with Konrad "Koni" Steffen of the University of Colorado, one of the world's leading Greenland researchers. He's come to Greenland at least once a year every summer since 1990. This year, he's coming three times and, as you're reading this, he is doing field work on the highest point of Greenland's ice sheet.

Mr. Steffen represented the United States at a recent forum on climate change in St. Petersburg, Russia, and will be among the scientific presenters at an event in Copenhagen next year touted as the world's biggest attempt to bring industrialized nations together on the issue since the decade-old talks in Kyoto, Japan.

Perhaps his most famous student is Ohio State University's Jason Box, who has been in Greenland at least once every summer since 1994. He has appeared on the Today show and, like Mr. Steffen, has drawn international attention for his work from such publications as the New York Times.

I had dinner with Jason in Ilulissat on Thursday night.

One thing the two have in common is a vision of hope. They don't view climate change as some apocalyptic, doomsday scenario.

Mr. Steffen, who also was featured in a recent Rolling Stone magazine article, told me he's an optimist - even though America was developed and continues to operate on "cheap" forms of energy, such as oil and coal. This will surprise and perhaps irritate many of you, but he's of the opinion that $4 for a gallon of gas is still cheap, relative to other parts of the world.

He's optimistic because of America's legacy for innovation. He said our urge to be a world leader in technology will likely carry over to the climate crisis, something that will likely never be solved but could at least be slowed down enough for societies to adjust.

And show their resiliency.

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