Greenland does have green land, but we’re going to stick close to the coast and focus our attention on fjords, glaciers, and icebergs that are the common features of the landscape here.
At the Mouth of the Ilulissat Icefjord
We’re in western Greenland, 350 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle at the mouth of the Ilulissat Icefjord. At first glance, all you see is water, ice, some scrabbly-looking land. But take a closer look. The tiny town of Ilulissat stands on the rocky, solid land.
To the right of the land is the Ilulissat Icefjord. A fjord is a long and narrow water inlet surrounded on either side by steep land. All fjords are created by massive glaciers slowly carving into the land as they slide to the sea.
Glaciers are constantly moving, although the movement is too slow for you to notice. The glacier you see beneath you moves between 20 and 35 meters a day.
In the Inuit language, Ilulissat means “icebergs.” Home to over 4,000 residents, Ilulissat is the third most populated town in Greenland. Interestingly, there are just as many sledge dogs as people living in the town. Dogsleds are a common form of transportation here year-round.
The Ilulissat Icefjord
A glacier is a massive body of ice that constantly moves under its own weight. Glaciers are formed over many, many years. As you look around at the landscape, you’ll notice a long stretch of ice that extends along the right edge of the land.
This is the Jakobshavn Glacier, which moves along the Ilulissat Icefjord. This glacier makes about 10% of Greenland’s icebergs, some of which are so large that they get anchored on the ocean floor and cannot float away.
As you scan the ocean’s surface, you’ll see countless icebergs of all sizes floating away from the glacier. Typically, icebergs are chunks of ice that are larger than 5 meters across.
After an iceberg breaks off its “mother” glacier or ice shelf, it is carried away by ocean on currents. Once the ice reaches a warmer climate, it melts away. Many scientists come to Greenland to study how icebergs are formed, where they go, and how icebergs affect ocean life.
As you look around the landscape, you can’t help but notice the vast expanse of blue ocean. This water is part of the Davis Strait, which is the northern extension of the Labrador Sea. The Davis Strait extends between the western coast of Greenland and Buffin Island in Canada.
Named after explorer John Davis (1550-1605), who charted the area while looking for the Northern Passage, the Davis Strait is also where the Jakobshavn Glacier meets the sea. The strait is about 650 kilometers long and 650 kilometers wide.
Look closely at the solid land where the glacier makes its way into the ocean. There you’ll see tiny white specks that are the houses and buildings in the town of Ilulissat. Ilulissat was originally called Jacobshaven. It was established in 1741 as a trading post.
Over 90% of the people living in Ilulissat are indigenous Inuits. The language you hear most often here is Kalaallisut, a dialect of Greenlandic and the official language of the Greenlandic autonomous territory since 2009.
The Mouth of the Icefjord
Notice the icebergs floating out to sea. They seem to be coming from a solid piece of ice just beyond the land. That is the Jakobshavn Glacier emerging from the Ilulissat Icefjord. The Ilulissat Icefjord was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
Many tourists from around the world come here to see the fjord, the glacier, and ice floes. The Jakobshavn Glacier is about 40 kilometers long and 5 kilometers wide. There are places where the ice is over 150 meters thick.
Icebergs of Various Sizes
Icebergs are large chunks of ice that calf from, or break off of, a glacier. Icebergs may appear harmless from this bird’s eye view, but they pose a great danger to boats. (Remember that a glacier sank the “unsinkable” Titanic!)
Have you ever heard the saying, “That’s just the tip of the iceberg”? The saying stems from the fact that what you see sticking up above the water is only a small portion of the entire iceberg.
The largest part of an iceberg is underwater, where it may extend not just vertically, but also outward horizontally while remaining invisible from above. You can understand why boats stay away.
Each iceberg weighs several tons and can crush a boat that happens to cross its path. The scientists who study the glacier and icebergs and photographers who want to capture them get around in helicopters.
The massive bright white ice formation you see extending from the land into the sea is a glacier. The ice appears to change color depending on the time of day. Here, you can see how aquamarine the ocean water appears where it overlaps the glacier’s ice.
Large chunks of ice continuously break off the glacier and fall into the ocean. As you can see, icebergs can range widely in size.
Life among the icebergs
As you scan the landscape, you’re not likely to see much in the way of living things on the glacier or in the waters surrounding the countless icebergs. But many forms of life thrive here.
Living in the frigid waters and on the ice are numerous kinds of mammals, including whales, seals, walruses, and polar bears. A huge variety of fish and shellfish, including shrimp, halibut, redfish, and anglers, live beneath the water’s surface.
There is such a variety of fish, in fact, that fishing is one of the main sources of income for the people of Greenland.
The Arched Iceberg
Take a good look at this towering arched iceberg. Know that in the not-so-distant future, this iceberg will change its appearance as more chunks of ice fall off and more ice melts away.
If you study the edges of the iceberg, you can see cracks already forming, hinting at where the next chunk of ice will break off.
Humans among the icebergs
Many of the working people in Greenland are tied in one way or another to the fishing industry. The fishing industry, both wild and farm-raised, is the main business in Greenland. In fact, fish make up about 90% of Greenland’s exports.
However, you will also see boats carrying scientists who are studying the glaciers and marine life, and even tourists who want to witness the massive beauty of the icebergs face-to-face. The boat you see here is keeping well clear of the icebergs just to play it safe.
Sunset in Greenland
Greenland is located so far north that for a good part of the summer, the sun never truly sets. This is why Greenland has been called the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” Look at different areas of different icebergs and you’ll see a variety of colors.
The orange, red, and pink sunlight of dusk and dawn create this effect. As you look at the ocean you’ll see the color ranges from aqua blue near the icebergs, to deep blue and almost black as the sun hovers at the horizon.