Last year, a small team of geography students from Scotland organised their own expedition to Greenland to study the impact of climate change and to create public and educational resources. Writing for Glasgow City of Science, Cameron Mackay shares his personal story of some of the challenges facing our changing planet.
I am currently a second year Geography student and, as a geographer, I am very interested in ways that we can work to combat the issue of climate change.
In the summer of 2014, a team of four of us – all undergraduate students from across Scotland – took on the challenge of organising our own expedition to Greenland. We wanted to study how climate change is affecting the landscape and people of the Arctic.
Here I hope to share with you some findings from the recent expedition to Greenland and also suggest ways in which art can be used to engage more people with environmental issues and inspire action.
Our research in Greenland aimed to investigate how climate change is impacting both the landscape and local people of the country. Our findings posed a challenge; we discovered that the people of Greenland had a very different attitude towards environmental issues than we did. But, as climate change is a global issue it requires a global, unified response.
Our journey began in late 2013, as we began to develop plans for the trip. Nine months later, funding and logistics were in place and were ready to set off. In July 2014, we flew from Edinburgh to Kangerlussuaq in West Greenland. From here we travelled east to the Russell Glacier where we set up a basecamp and began our studies.
The Russell Glacier is one of the main outlets of the Greenland Ice Sheet, an expanse of ice that forms 80% of the land area in Greenland. This ice is up to 100,000 years old and is home to some of the world’s biggest glaciers. The ice here responds directly to air temperature. In the winter the glaciers can advance and in the summer they retreat. This forms a balance that will dictate how far the ice will reach. These processes are closely linked with the surrounding landscape. Melt flowing from the glaciers forms huge melt water rivers and the erosional force of the flowing ice forms the valleys and mountains that we can see in Greenland today.
Due to human activities, these processes are undergoing a colossal change. The warming air temperatures mean that the glaciers can’t advance enough in winter to counteract the summer melt so are continuously retreating. This can be seen in the Russell Glacier, which has receded thirty metres in the last ten years. This is a faster rate than has ever been recorded. With 2014 being the hottest year on global record, we can only expect these processes to get more pronounced in future.
As increasing amounts of melt water flow over the surface of the ice sheet, they form channels and lakes, just like you would expect in any other river system. However, unlike river systems that we are used to that flow over solid rock, the ice that supports the lakes on the ice sheet can crack and melt. As this happens, huge volumes of water cascade to the bottom of the ice sheet and into nearby rivers. This causes torrential flash floods of melt water to flow across the landscape, implementing their huge erosive force and posing a severe danger to anybody who lives or works nearby.
Ice is also lost from the glaciers, more gradually, through calving events. This is when huge blocks of ice break off from the face of the glacier and fall into the melt water streams below. In Greenland we wanted to see exactly how fast this was happening and compare the Russell Glacier to other models based on glaciers elsewhere. To do this we used several time-lapse cameras. These are small robust cameras that can be pre-programmed to take pictures at set time intervals for up to several weeks. We stationed these facing the Russell Glacier for our time in Greenland. Once home we stitched thousands of photos together to create a fast motion account of the 2014 summer calvings.
Based on previous studies, we expected to see occasional calving events with quiet periods in between. What we actually saw was that the glaciers were continuously shedding ice and there was always some small or large chunks breaking off. This caused a huge amount of ice to be added to the melt water streams as water and icebergs that flowed towards the town of Kangerlussuaq.
It was here, in Kangerlussuaq that we knew of a flash flood event in 2012 that caused the local’s bridge to be washed away and have to be rebuilt. We therefore wanted to study how this impacted locals. We spoke to ten groups of locals, ranging from three to four people in the tourist offices to individuals in shops and asked them the question; how is climate change affecting your life?
The responses we got were very surprising. It seems that the locals were actually having a very positive experience of climate change. Due to the warming climate, farming can now be practiced in certain locations in South Greenland and this is expected to be the case in Kangerlussuaq very soon. In such a baron landscape, where there are very few opportunities for industry, farming could give a huge boost to the local economy and create a product to export.
Without a doubt, the biggest benefit the locals are experiencing as a result of climate change is tourism. Melting ice has put Greenland on the map. As the media presents footage of the Arctic regions in relation to the changing climate, many people are inspired to travel there. Each year, huge numbers of tourists and scientists travel to Kangerlusuaq with the aim of seeing the glaciers. After all, this is the same reason we decided to go there. Whilst in the area, visitors go on excursions onto the ice sheet and stay several nights in the hostels and the hotel in town. A company called Air Zafari, that offer aerial plane tours over the ice sheet told us that their visitors always say that they want to see huge calvings of ice breaking off from the glacier and the colossal melt water rivers from above.
The town has adapted to accommodate this influx in western visitors. There an now many restaurants and clothing shops that cater specifically to a foreign audience. With shop names like the ‘Polar Bear Inn’, it is clear that the traditional culture has been sacrificed through westernization to encourage tourism.
These responses shocked us and also posed a challenge. It appeared that the local Greenlanders focused solely on the short-term implications of their actions and did not look to the future implications. An example of this lies in one of the many rubbish dumps that surround the town. These places are where locals deposit disused vehicles and machinery. When exploring the area, we came across over a hundred old oil drums. These had been left to rot and were leaking oil into the soil below them. For locals these areas are great as they offer a quick solution to dispose of unwanted waste. However, they do pose a much longer-term environmental risk, which the locals are not aware of.
As we left Greenland, we found ourselves asking the question: how do you approach people in places like Kangerlussuaq in the Arctic about climate change when, so far, it has brought them so many benefits? To tackle the global issue of climate change we first need to develop a worldwide, shared understanding and response through learning more about the cultures that exit right next to the ice bodies that regulate climate change. There are many opportunities for further research into how local people interact with the landscape and the values they place on it. Through this we can develop a mutual appreciation of the importance of the environment between Greenland and the wider world.
Visit Cameron Mackay’s website and read more Stories From a Changing Planet
Visit Education Scotland for an online mini-series of videos documenting the impact of climate change in Greenland produced by the expedition team.