80% Ice Covered, Greenland is 100% Worth the Visit

Jake Bensussen
A view from the Arctic Umiaq Coastal Ferry, one of the few ways to get from city to city along Greenland’s west coast.

Stepping on the tarmac of Greenland’s lone international airport in Kangerlussuaq, it’s difficult to anticipate what awaits in this remote, cold, and isolated place. Yet, this territory covered in over 1,700,000 square km of ice and a population of just under 60,000 is filled to the brim with stories and excitement.

Even more amazing than the sights were the professors and students who accompanied me on the UW Greenland Exploration Seminar, providing a diverse array of perspectives that allowed me to understand such a foreign place.

This past August and September, glaciology professor Michelle Koutnik led me and thirteen UW students on the trip of a lifetime down the west coast of Greenland and over to Denmark. From the 69th parallel to the 55th, Michelle packed each day with meaningful lectures, tours, and hikes. Along the way we were welcomed by local scientists, cultural leaders, and politicians. Each provided personal insight on climate science, Greenlandic life, and sustainability. With the help of John Christian (glaciology graduate student), and Hans Christian Steen-Larsen (University of Bergen climate professor), we made our way through Greenland learning, laughing, and questioning.

Our group was multidisciplinary, drawing on a multitude of perspectives from the College of the Environment, Jackson School of International Studies, College of Engineering, and even the Foster School of Business! This diversity cultivated conversations atypical to traditional classrooms.

Sarah Flint and Hans Christian Steen-Larsen
Professor Michelle Koutnik and the University of Washington group.
John Christian
This picture of the Ilulissat Icefjord demonstrates the height of the icebergs at the mouth of the fjord.

Our first stop in Greenland was Ilulissat, a city famous for its proximity to the Northern Hemisphere’s most productive glacier, Jakobshavn. One evening a group of us went for a hike out to the mouth of the Icefjord to see the icebergs that calved off Jakobshavn make their way to sea. We walked out past the power station to an observer platform at the city’s end. When we turned the corner of the fjord, we got our first glimpse of the icebergs. The scale was breathtaking! It’s difficult to visualize chunks of ancient calved ice the size of cities until they are right in front of you.

During lecture the next morning, a map of the Jakobshavn Glacier was projected on the board. It took several minutes to realize that what we’d seen the night before was literally “tip of the iceberg” so to speak. We’d seen roughly 10% of the 40 km long Ilulissat Icefjord. The calving front of Jakobshavn glacier wouldn’t be visible for another 35 km or so. It was almost inconceivable that these massive icebergs continued beyond the horizon.  

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
We were standing on the far left, where the ice field ends and the icebergs float out to sea.

These diagrams reveal that the Ilulissat Icefjord wasn’t always so long. In fact, just 18 years ago, the calving front would have been 15 km closer to the mouth of the fjord. Realizing the scale of Jakobshavn’s glacial retreat and the bedrock factors that exacerbate the effect of warming temperatures was eye-opening. Suddenly it’s not difficult to believe that Greenland currently loses over 281 billion tons of ice a year, 6% of which flows through Jakobshavn. Seeing these phenomena in person provided context for the magnitude of arctic warming and urgency of climate change.

Bondizo et al.(2017)
Since 2001, Jakobshavn’s seasonal retreat has accelerated. These charts illustrate the bed topography and geophysical factors that make Jakobshavn the Northern Hemisphere’s most productive glacial outflow.

Not only did we find drastic changes in Greenland’s environment, but also in the lives of Greenlanders. For Inuit communities that have adapted to the Arctic’s conditions for hundreds of years, increased ecotourism, government regulation, and changing environmental factors present threats to their way of life.

In Aasiaat we found the wonderful Sorena, who ran the tourist center. She made sure we felt right at home — even taking us into her own. One night she invited us over for an iconic Greenlandic dinner of caribou, fish stew, and fresh caught shrimp. The evening was largely spent discussing the addition of airports to accommodate tourism, government regulations on hunting, mining operations in south Greenland, and the preservation of Inuit culture.

Jake Bensussen
Sorena showing us traditional Inuit face paint and drum dance ceremony.

Underlying the conversation was the need for economic development, desire for environmental protection, and hope for cultural preservation. This highlights the intersectional nature of sustainability. Climate mitigation projects in the Arctic need to balance economic development and cultural preservation with environmental protection. Only then can we safely and adequately implement solutions.  

 

Jake Bensussen
Climate mitigation and adaptation projects need to balance cultural and economic impacts on local communities alongside environmental protection.

 

The final week of the program was spent touring Copenhagen. There we met with city planners, climate scientists, and renewable energy agencies working in climate adaptation, ice core testing, and emission mitigation. While their work and dedication are awe-inspiring, it was sometimes disheartening to realize the odds they are up against.

It just so happened that our time in Denmark overlapped with the People’s Climate March through downtown Copenhagen. Seeing thousands take the streets in support of environmental scientists, sustainability professionals, and policymakers renewed a sense of hope. While anthropogenic emissions present hundreds of hurdles, there are thousands of scientists working to overcome them, and millions of activists cheering them on.

Jake Bensussen
People’s Climate March through Copenhagen

Nothing worth doing is easy. While climate change presents multifaceted and complex issues, my experiences in Greenland and Denmark have inspired me to continue working in environmental protection. None of this would have been possible without the support of the University of Washington, Program of Climate Change, Scan|Design Foundation, and Professor Koutnik. I’m so grateful for the inspiration and opportunity.

If you’re interested in learning more about UW’s Greenland/Denmark Exploration Seminar, please check out Professor Koutnik’s site: http://www.michelle-koutnik.com/exploration-seminar/

Written by: Jake Bensussen


Jake Bensussen
Images from Greenland

Jake Bensussen is a senior studying Finance in the Foster School of Business. Beyond his business coursework, he is pursuing a minor in climate science through the Program on Climate Change. At the University of Washington, Jake works on the business team of the UW Indoor Farm, developing sustainable food sources for campus. Jake hopes to continue working at the intersection of environmental protection and business development.