In popular imaginings, the Greenland ice sheet is one big, white, flat, frozen piece of ice.
That perception is natural given that the world’s second-biggest body of ice is called a “sheet.” But viewed up close, the ice reveals an astounding array of colors and terrain. Aquamarine rivers and streams crisscross the surface, carving out impressive chasms, canyons, and moulins (essentially large, water-carved holes) in the ice. Massive waterfalls of melting snow tumble down into churning white-water rapids and pitch-black moulins below in what looks like a terrifying winter wonderland. Black and blue cryoconite holes full of sediment, soot, and microorganisms dot the crystalline surface of the ice sheet. Taupe-colored snow bridges cross the rivers, while some of the snow looks as pink as watermelons. Scientists believe that microbes and algae may be responsible for a significant portion for the variation in ice color. Researchers with the Dark Snow project are examining the consequences of the warming and melting of the ice sheet on the microbes that live in this environment. Changes in their populations could alter the ice sheet’s albedo, or reflectivity, which has feedback loops on climate change.
What I’m here to help out with in the field is a project examining the rivers on top of the ice sheet – called supraglacial rivers – led by UCLA Geography Professor Laurence Smith and his research group, along with Dr. Asa Rennermalm and her students at Rutgers University. The supraglacial rivers and their role in the overall dynamics of the glacier and melting processes are not widely understood. By studying them, we hope to generate a better understanding of glacial discharge in Greenland, allowing us to more accurately estimate how much and how quickly the ice sheet is melting. This information is useful for calculating global phenomena such as sea level rise.
For the next two weeks, I’ll post updates from the field in Greenland. I’ll talk about both the mundane, like daily life living in Kangerlussuaq, a town of 512 people at the end of a fjord in western Greenland, and the extreme, like flying a couple hundred feet over the ice sheet in a helicopter with the door open. While a lot of people have been to the ice sheet in Greenland, most travel to the ice core drilling sites farther inland or to places like Summit, a research station at the highest point on the ice sheet. Others research the edge of the ablation zone, the area of a glacier with a net loss of ice due to melt-off into rivers or the ocean. Few, however, study the higher part of the ablation zone where the supraglacial rivers transport meltwater from the ice sheet to lower elevations. Through these posts, I hope to provide snapshots of what this jaw-droppingly beautiful place looks like while also showing that life in Greenland is not always so far from ordinary. People here love to eat pizza, for instance, just like many other places in the world. It’s just that the pizza comes with muskox on top.
This post first appeared on Cryopolitics, an Arctic News and Analysis blog.