For a week in July 2018, an iceberg as tall as the Statue of Liberty filled the villagers of Innaarsuit, Greenland, with existential dread. Photo: Magnus Kristensen / Ritzau Scanpix / Reuters

By Carolyn Kormann
20 July 2018

(The New Yorker) – For a week, an iceberg as colossal as it is fragile held everyone in suspense. It arrived like a gargantuan beast that you hope won’t notice you, at the fishing village of Innaarsuit, Greenland, about five hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. The iceberg posed a mortal threat to the village population of about a hundred and seventy people. Standing three hundred feet tall (the height of the Statue of Liberty) and weighing an estimated ten million metric tons (equal to thirty Empire State buildings), it’s riven with cracks and holes. If a big enough part of it sloughed off, in a process known as “calving,” it would cause a tsunami, immediately destroying the little settlement on whose shore it rested. “You don’t want to be anywhere near the water when it’s happening,” a glaciologist who does research in Greenland said. “It’s just incredibly violent.” People began to evacuate.

Innaarsuit residents are a hardy bunch, living in the sort of climatic extremes that temperate zoners might call otherwordly. For much of the summer, the sun is always up. This year, it won’t set again until in early August. The temperature on Friday was thirty-nine degrees Fahrenheit—about as warm as it ever gets—and in the darkness of February and March, the average remains below zero. There are no trees. People hunt narwhals (polar unicorns), whales, and seals. The single road dead-ends at a cemetery. Boat captains (the only people who can get you off the island, apart from helicopter pilots) are constantly navigating an endless parade of baby icebergs, set loose from their mothers, drifting with the current past the village, often close enough to touch. They tend to be the size of a beach ball, a dinghy, a shack. The most recent visitor is different, obviously. “This iceberg is the biggest we have seen,” a village council member named Susanne K. Eliassen said. Karl Petersen, the village council chair, called on the press, asking the world for assistance if the berg were to calve. For the crowd watching online, it was like Jaws. We hoped desperately that the great white thing would just continue on its way.

Big icebergs are nothing new, but they usually remain far offshore. Ocean currents and wind push the icebergs along, sometimes five or more miles a day. In this case, the berg got stuck in the shallow waters of the bay. Eric Rignot, a glaciologist from the University of California, Irvine, said that it probably originated from one of the nearby glaciers that flow down the fjords along Greenland’s west coast. Those glaciers have long been notable for pushing a lot of icebergs out into the sea. But nowadays they are in retreat—more ice is more rapidly breaking from the glacier’s face than snow is accumulating on its back.With climate change, what happened in Innaarsuit, Rignot said, is expected to occur more frequently. Joshua Willis, a glaciologist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, put it in simple terms: “As things continue to warm up, more ice is gonna come off and float around.” Drought-stricken South Africa wants to tow one such berg to Cape Town, to prevent the country’s taps from running dry. […]

Back in Innaarsuit, the great white iceberg remained mostly intact and, with some help from a new-moon tide and benevolent winds, continued drifting north. By Wednesday, everybody felt safe enough to go home. The store opened, the fishermen got back in their boats and resumed catching green halibut. It’s nice when a story about an iceberg has a happy ending, at least for now. [more]

Climate Change and the Giant Iceberg Off Greenland’s Shore

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