Greenland ice sheet from Tinit

A view of the Greenland ice sheet from Tinit’s community burial ground

Last summer, encounters with the Greenland ice sheet made me cry. Twice.

In August, I traveled to East Greenland—the remote part of the frozen expanse that Inuit locals call the “back side.” Sailing past a bitty hamlet called Tinit on the Sermilik Fjord, the rugged landscape bowled me over. Monstrous icebergs jut from the ocean at every conceivable angle and the ice sheet hulks on the horizon. Less than 3,500 people live along the entire 1,600-mile coast.

icebergs Sermilik Fjord, Greenland

If you’re paying attention to the news, it’s hard not to sob in the presence of the Greenland ice sheet. Its fate affects everything we know.

During a week in the shadow of big ice, I felt the power of tidal glaciers and cast-off bergs. I heard the snap-crackle-pop of floating pieces, known as growlers. After kayaking on glassy water among the bergy bits one afternoon, I spent an hour perched on a smooth rock in front of my safari-style tent, watching four fin whales troll our cove while the ice sheet loomed over their spouts. My awe divided between the two spectacles.

If you need to define wilderness, a precise explanation could be to simply say Greenland. Its grandeur provokes relaxation. The potential dangers make senses acute. It’s a little bit like a journey into the heart of darkness—a soul-searching place to consider the paradoxes of climate change.

Earth’s largest island, Greenland spans 836,000 square miles, 81% of which is locked up in ice. It’s inhabited by just over 56,000 people, making it the planet’s least densely populated nation and home to the world’s largest national park. For a week, I’m lucky to be surrounded by this raw expanse, living behind the safety of a polar bear fence while staying at a remote Arctic base camp that exudes that Danish quality of coziness known as hygge.

tidal glacier Sermilik Fjord, Greenland

This is the essence of solitude. Greenland is a mass of folded, billion-year-old gneiss. It’s laced with rubies that sparkle to the naked eye and ancient water that’s frozen 10,000 feet thick. Serrated peaks rival any gnarly mountainscape. During the brief season when a boat instead of a dog sled conveys you across the sea, your travel mates are narwhal, humpback and minke whales, and your curious observers are ring, bearded and harp seals. Summer is the short sweet season when a ribbon of green laps at the watery edge, while miniature wildflowers and delicious sorrel erupt from the spongy tundra.

cottongrass on East Greenland tundra

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In truth, my first Greenland ice encounter happened in suburban Denver, before I traveled to the Arctic. My tears sublimated inside a walk-in freezer at the National Science Foundation Ice Core Laboratory when curator Geoffrey Hargreaves slid a one-meter Greenland bore out of its aluminum storage tube. At the tip of my mitten was the deepest sample from the deepest ice core recovered anywhere in the world.

GISP2 ice core NSF Ice Core Laboratory

On July 1, 1993, after five years of drilling, the Greenland Ice Sheet Project Two (GISP2) drilled all the way through the Greenland ice sheet and six feet into bedrock to recover this 10,018-foot ice core. To date, it’s still the deepest ice core recovered anywhere in the world–100,000 years of climate locked in in 1-meter chunks of ice stored at the National Science Foundation Ice Core Laboratory.

That week, headlines were dire. The atmosphere had broken the 410 parts per million CO2 barrier, casting the planet into an unprecedented scenario for climate change and all its ramifications on land, water, wildlife and our comfortable lives. Earth was setting all kinds of new heat records.

The sample might seem underwhelming as cloudy ice and crumbly rock wrapped in plastic. But it felt overwhelming to know a 100,000-year-old air bubble locked up in that frozen water might hold a key to our 21st century survival.

Colorado’s cores

Built inside a mid-century structure that was once the largest warehouse west of the Mississippi River, the giant ice core freezer hums with high-powered compressors. The NSF’s ice core lab is tucked between the United States Geological Service’s shale rock and radioactive “hot rock” samples, and it protects a curated library of Earth’s past atmosphere locked up in ice.

freezer door NSF Ice Core Laboratory

The Colorado lab is a mecca where scientists come to investigate what’s happened, and what’s next. Built in 1993 to store samples from U.S.-funded polar expeditions, it protects these keystones for observing climate change in a giant freezer.

Ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica are meticulously archived at -32.8 F. Scientists vie for the chance to inspect a slice of ice, traveling from all over the world to the facility’s adjoining examination freezer—a balmy -11.2 F lab filled with table saws that mostly resembles a wood shop.

cutting ice cores for study, NSF Ice Core Laboratory

It was 80 degrees outside on the day I visited, but polar expedition gear is everyday workwear here.

Cores are stacked to the ceiling, each bore slice numbered and measured according to how it emerged from its ice sheet, then stored in meter-long aluminized cardboard tubes. Scientists look at what’s locked in tiny air bubbles, chemical signatures, volcanic particles and dust. In addition to the actual ice shelf, the core is a secondary ground for scientific investigation—offering a carefully reconstructed picture of past climate fluctuations and some of the best insight we have into future climate change.

Truth in ice

Powerful ice currents left East Greenland largely inaccessible, even for enterprising Vikings. Cell phones and internet aside, such remoteness has preserved a traditional lifestyle for Greenlandic people. This is a destination for less-hardy souls like me to take a deep breath and comprehend the true meaning of “sustainability.”

iceberg in Sermilik Fjord, Greenland

Life on ice is precarious. I had to lean in and appreciate what’s different.

Greenlanders hunt marine mammals, use their dogs to work, and grapple with ways to coexist with polar bears. Trees are nonexistent and wood is treated like gold. Disputes are settled over a lively drum dance. Families are only a generation past living in sod houses. And at their doorstep is the East Greenland Current, a superhighway for sea ice whooshing out of the Arctic.

tidal glacier and bergy bits near Bad Island, East Greenland

Every day is different. It’s unknown and unpredictable.On land and sea, we visit as adventure seekers and scientists operating at the whim of wind and weather. Greenlanders advise patience with a nonchalant “Immaqa”—a “maybe” that’s their equivalent of the Arabic catchall, “Inshallah.”

Tinit, East Greeenland

In Greenland’s villages, with colorful Danish-style homes, sled dogs staked in the front yard and fish drying out back, there’s a strange convergence of humanity. One day you’ll meet an expeditionary team setting out to ski traverse the ice sheet. The next, it’s researchers like NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland scientists (better known as the OMG team led by Josh Willis, a.k.a. Climate Elvis). Toasting over beers in the single outpost hotel/bar near the region’s only airport in Kulusuk, the conversation naturally swings toward sea level rise and how warming oceans are melting ice sheets from below.

Whatever you’re pursuing out here, signs of climate change remain pervasive. The experience of raw beauty will mark you for life. And what everyone knows is that what happens in Greenland doesn’t stay in Greenland.

This story originally appeared in the summer 2019 edition of Steamboat Magazine.

All photos © Jennie Lay