Can Tourism Help Save the Greenland Ice Sheet?

Wendy Redal April 6, 2012 0
Greenland's massive ice sheet is melting at a rapidly accelerating rate. Photo: Greenland Tourism

Greenland’s massive ice sheet is melting at a rapidly accelerating rate. Photo: Greenland Tourism

Carbon output from long-distance flights aside, more visitors to Greenland—one of the world’s last remaining tourism frontiers—could help raise concern about global warming and its effects on our planet’s diminishing ice.

A new trend in “climate change tourism” is bringing more travelers to the world’s largest icebound island and elsewhere in the Arctic to experience these frozen realms and see their native wildlife, such as polar bears, before melting accelerates further.

Smithsonian reports “In 2010, according to the World Meteorological Organization, the temperature in Greenland and the Canadian Arctic was an average of 5 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. One result has been more seasonal melting of the Greenland ice sheet,” and with it, more people who want to get there before it’s gone.

Icebergs in Greenland can be as big as ships. Photo: Greenland Tourism

Icebergs in Greenland can be as big as ships. Photo: Greenland Tourism

Some 30,000 people reached Greenland on cruise ships in 2010—double the number in 2004—with another 30,000 coming by air. Some of them have been Natural Habitat Expeditions clients, traveling far afield of ships to kayak the remote reaches of the Greenland coast and dog sled over the pack ice in the High Arctic.

The Allure of All That Ice

The polar regions have always attracted explorers and adventurers. The first people came to Greenland more than 4,500 years ago, ancestors of the Inuit who migrated northeast from what is now Canada. The Vikings did not arrive until the 10th century, while the first European crossing of the enormous inland icefield was undertaken by Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen and his expedition in 1888.

While the Inuit have adapted over the centuries to life in Greenland’s forbidding environs, only the coast is truly habitable. While Greenland is the size of France, Spain and Germany combined, it has just 56,000 residents and only 75 miles of road. Most people live in traditional villages or small towns and are dependent on traditional ways of life such as hunting and fishing, also threatened by climate change.

The ice in the current ice sheet is as old as 110,000 years. Such massive weight over time has depressed the central area of Greenland, pushing its bedrock surface to near sea level over most of the interior. Mountains around the perimeter keep the ice sheet contained, meaning that Greenland has no ice shelves like Antarctica does. If the ice disappeared, Greenland would probably appear as an archipelago.

What if it Melted?

The Greenland Ice Sheet has experienced record melting in recent years, and while it won’t be vanishing any time soon, data collected by NASA and others indicate that the ice is melting at an increasing and faster-than-predicted rate. Some scientists are concerned that rapid warming may have already pushed Greenland’s ice sheet over a threshold where the entire glaciated mass could melt in several hundred years.

Once melting accelerates, more flowing water lubricates the ice sheet and creates conditions that hasten even faster melting. Even without record temperatures, warming can create self-amplifying melting conditions.

If it melted completely, Greenland’s ice would raise global sea level by about 23 feet and possibly affect ocean circulation patterns. NASA’s findings support those of a report released last year that projects that sea levels will rise from three to five feet in the coming century due to global warming, and that much of the increase will come from melting ice in the Arctic and Greenland.

Will Tourism Hurt or Help a Warming Arctic?

The harsh fact is that transportation, especially fossil-fuel-intensive air travel, is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions contributing to global warming. Thus, encouraging tourists to observe firsthand the effects of climate change in places like Greenland is only worsening the problem, critics say.

Tourist walking atop a glacier in Greenland. Photo: Greenland Tourism

Tourist walking atop a glacier in Greenland. Photo: Greenland Tourism

But tourism might be what it takes to get the world to take global warming seriously, says Malik Milfeldt of the Greenland Tourism and Business Council. Quoted in Smithsonian, Milfeldt says, “’If people come to Greenland and see how much the glaciers have been retreating and realize it’s for real, and change the way they use energy, then maybe the net benefit will be for the globe, for the climate.” In that view, the real question isn’t whether people should travel, but how they should live when they get back home.”

If raising awareness is what it takes to change behavior, and travel is one of the best avenues for expediting that process, then “climate change tourism” to Greenland, Spitsbergen, the Canadian High Arctic and other polar climes could have a positive impact on the planet.

Obviously, we at Natural Habitat Expeditions see the inherent irony in that situation. One of our most exciting Greenland expeditions, in fact, Kayaking the Forbidden Coast, has only recently been made possible due to the melting in the Kangerlussuaq Fjord region that has opened up ice-free corridors in which to paddle. Yet we continue to believe that seeing the astonishing landscapes of the Arctic and meeting its traditional people will inspire travelers to return home with expanded influence to enlist others in conserving this irreplaceable icy wilderness.

Kayaking among Greenland's icebergs. The word 'kayak' comes from the Greenlandic word 'qajaq." Photo: Greenland Tourism

Kayaking among Greenland’s icebergs. The word ‘kayak’ comes from the Greenlandic word ‘qajaq.” Photo: Greenland Tourism

If you’d like to see ice-bound Greenland while we still can, check out our amazing Greenland adventures on land and at sea:

Natural Habitat Base Camp Greenland

For more information on these or any of Natural Habitat Expeditions’ adventures in the Arctic or Antarctic, give our office a call at  1-800-543-8917.

Stay Chill,


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