Ice Mine in Greenland

by Bill Chameides | August 16th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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To visit Greenland is to commune with frozen water.

A Summertime Visit to Greenland

They say Greenland — because it has the largest block of ice in the Northern Hemisphere in the Greenland ice sheet — should have been called Iceland, and Iceland should have been called Greenland.

But Greenland’s name is not entirely inappropriate. On my summertime visit to the world’s largest island I encountered a good deal of green tundra dotted with colorful flowers and lichen.


A Summer View of Greenland


But green or no green, to grok Greenland is to understand that Greenlandic life is grounded in ice — so much so that in the small villages I visited along the western coast — Qeqertasussuk, Ilulissat (a town named after the Greenlandic word for iceberg), and Sisimiut — there are more sled dogs than there are people. In Sisimiut they even have a sled-dog mini-city — a park on the outskirts of town reserved for the dogs to wait out the summer until snow returns and they can get back to work.


Dog Park in Greenland Greenland Dog Park


But you needn’t wait for winter to find ice in Greenland. Ice visions abound all year round.

The Icebergs of Disko Bay and Ilulissat

Sermeq Kujalleq, one of the world’s more productive outlet glaciers, feeds into Disko Bay.

Navigating through the bay is like zigging and zagging through a museum filled with randomly placed ice and snow sculptures. Icebergs of every shape and size fill the bay — some small enough to pick up, others seemingly big enough to encompass several city blocks, vertically and horizontally. You strain to get as close as possible … but not too close.

Another Greenland Iceberg


Ashore, gazing out to sea gives another perspective: icebergs filling the horizon.

In the great cities of the world, the skyline is defined by skyscrapers. In villages like Ilulissat, it is the distant icebergs towering over rooftops that shape the skyline but with one important difference: it is an ever changing skyline, as the icebergs move and melt and break.


Greenland Icebergs on the Horizon

At the Edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet

Leaving the ocean view to drive inland in search of more ice will not disappoint. In no time, paved roads give way to dirt paths, a huge white wall appears up ahead, and then the road just plain ends. This is the edge of the massive Greenland ice sheet.

To be strictly accurate, it is not actually ice that you first encounter; what initially comes into view is an eerie, stark landscape of silt, rock and boulders that have been pushed and plowed into huge hills by the ice sheet. Glaciologists refer to these formations as moraines.


Another Greenland Moraine


To get to the ice, you must first climb up and over the moraines. (And you can count on finding reminders of your moraine jaunt for many days to come in the silty dust that clings to your clothes and boots.)


Rolling Hills of Greenland


Past the moraine, the ice sheet stretches out before you in sometimes rolling and sometimes jagged hills and dales for as far as the eye can see.




The ice at the edges is the oldest and it is almost black with sand and silt. Further on, the ice takes on paler shades of gray and in the distance looks to be white. A steady icy wind blows off the sheet, necessitating gloves, earmuffs and scarves on an otherwise relatively warm, sunny, Greenlandic day.

Short video of glacial water.

The air is filled with the sound of flowing water as tiny rivulets of meltwater gather into streams, ultimately forming into frothing, violent rivers that rush to the glacial lake below.

But if you listen very carefully, there is also a barely audible clinking — it’s the sound of ice cracking beneath your feet.

Ice often carries a sense of finality, an absence of life, a lack of motion.

We say that someone is “frozen in place.” Police in cop shows yell, “Freeze!” In Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle a sinister form of ice called ice-nine freezes the entire world into one huge still life.

But Greenland offers a different picture. Its ice sheet is a wintertime roadway for travel and commerce. Glaciers move and melt and crack inland. Icebergs float on the horizon. Greenland’s ice is very much alive.

Greenland Slide Show

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1 Comment

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  1. Marcia Angle
    Aug 17, 2010

    Hurray for Professor Chameides for making this eerie sounding place much more imaginable; I particularly appreciated the excerpt:encoded of the sound of ice cracking below your feet as you approach the glacier. The ice-bergs as ever-changing sky-scrappers metaphor is wonderful – thank you for sharing these pictures (and for enduring that boat ride) to give us land-lubbers all more sights, and insights.

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