In Prins Christian Sund

31 Jul 2011

A hillside in Prins Christians Sund echoes with the sound of Inuit drumming. It punctuates the constant roar of a stream hurtling down a blank granite face from a retreating glacier hanging above us. We tried and failed to get into the eastern entrance of this sound last night so spent the night rounding Cape Farewell to reach the southern opening.

I’m sitting on a large rock covered in black lichen. We have chosen this site for workshops -- painting, writing, music and drum dancing, to name a few. Dinner hour has passed but we ate lunch in the late afternoon after spending hours out in the zodiacs.

After three days of enough seas and thick fog, it is marvelous to be on land once more. The air is sweet with the scent of willow and birch which cling fast to the ground. These are ancient trees, even though they stand only a few metres high. The hills all around are a verdant green and one can see where Erik the Red, who led a group of settlers from Iceland in 986, got the name “Greenland”. It was also a good marketing ploy since these aren’t exactly sheep pastures. The Vikings did have farms but they were further back up the eastern coast. They settled and lived in Greenland for over 400 years until they suddenly vanished at the onset of the Little Ice Age. It’s more than likely that the changing climate contributed to their demise. 

We have sailed in new waters and walked on new land today. The fjords are deep and narrow here. Sheer rock faces climb 1000 metres and glaciers slide down to the water’s edge where the bottom is still several hundred metres below in many places.

Where we anchored this morning should not have been water, at least not according to the 1966 charts we carry (they are the most recent). In that year the terminus of the glacier we stopped to visit extended more than five kilometres further down the fjord. The land we made at the base of a retreating side glacier would not have been possible either. The chart shows it connected to the main glacier. The rubble strewn beach we were using for our outdoor glaciology class would have been buried deep in grinding ice.

So there are footprints here. You can see them easily all along the fjord where torrents of glacial water rush down to mix with the salt water. In one place a glacier, now just a remnant, had cut a steep U-shaped valley. The water churned through a narrow cut in the granite, falling at a precipitous angel. Once this channel flowed hidden beneath the glacier. That the ice has not been gone for long is attested to by the bare granitic pink U surrounded by darker, lichen covered rock which has been exposed since the end of the Ice Age.

We have learned much about glaciers from the scientific crew on board. The equation of a balanced glacier is easy to understand: if more water melts than snow falls, the glacier loses what is called “mass balance”. Increasing global temperatures are affecting the mass balance of glaciers in all but a few places in the world. Recent studies indicate Greenland’s massive ice cap, of which these glaciers form a small part, may be more threatened than was suspected even a couple of years ago.

There is another kind of imbalance we are reminded of in this spectacular place. That’s the one between knowledge and action. We know what we need to do to slow the process of climate change. So far we have chosen not to act. And the retreating glaciers in Prins Christians Sund are telling us we are running out of time to restore the balance.


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