In Search of the Vanishing Ice Border in Greenland's Arctic North
Following an old Inuit hunting path through towering ice floes and colorful villages to track climate change in the Arctic
I can see them in front of me. Rugged icebergs carved from centuries old ice. I am surrounded by silence, the sheer endlessness of the polar region. No souls, far and wide, only nature and myself. I like it this way. This could be because I am originally from a small island of the coast of Germany, that Greenland, the world's largest island, magically attracts me.
In May 2017 I came up with the idea to travel the ancient "Great Route,“ as Greenland’s Inuit ancestors travelled for generations before them. A year later, with my two friends, photographer Daniell Bohnhof and filmmaker Maximillian Stolarow, we enter Greenland to get in touch with locals and track how climate change is affecting the high north.
My plan is to paddle along the coast to get a better impression of the direct effects of climate changes. Aasiaat is the base for our journey. The small town of 5,600 residents is located on the southern tip of Disko Bay. At this place life exists on a completely different course than we are used to in our latitudes. The only ways to move around Greenland is by plane, helicopter, or boat. Or, in my case, stand up paddleboard. About 0.026 people per square kilometer live on Greeland—in Germany there are 232.
Wind, weather and ice conditions determine our planning. And finally, after a few frustrating days of waiting, we get the long-awaited call. Our guide martin has an idea—for the first few kilometers I will not paddle, but go via dog sled instead. Then I will start off alone.
After a few kilometers, I notice some ripples on the water. The wind has started again and the ice floes start to drift. I paddle through a small channel between the floes and before I know it it slides in front of the escort boat, separating us. With our paths split we zigzag between floating ice mountains.
I get stuck, grab the board and jump from ice floe to ice floe. It somehow reminds me of a computer game, but it's only half as fun—before I land on each floe, I never know if it will hold my weight. Of course, I have my board with me, which will always keep me afloat, but the situation is very uncomfortable, even with my special survival suit from Secumar, which normally serves sea rescuers and naval aviators.
"My goal was to reach the ice border. The fact that this fixed ice limit does not exist anymore has made the climate conditions here pretty obvious."
The water is just above freezing and the air is minus 15 degrees. Under these kind of conditions, I would like to avoid a swim in the Arctic Polar Sea. But the wind gets stronger and the floes drift more and more. Slowly they pile up and threaten to completely close the bay again. So we decide to pack myself and my board on the boat and quickly head for the next town. Safety first, especially in these regions.
Although we had planned some short stops, I would not have thought that the paddling would be this exhausting. Because of the interruptions of the ice floes and the short sprints to get through the gaps quickly, my strength is disappearing. This first stop is welcomed.
Back on land we get in contact with a few local fishermen, and quickly get into conversation, thanks to our guide and translator, Martin. (Only a few speak English and my Danish is about as good as my Greenlandic.) The Greenlanders are very sensitive to nature and its changes. Their whole way of life and survival is tied to the land and sea.
Valdemar Petersen is an 84-year-old hunter with whom we meet. Using old images and noisy Super 8 videos from his own archive, he helps us understand how nature and ice have changed. In winter, the Greenlanders hunt by dog sled, in summer by boat. Both are hardly possible nowadays, as the transition times with brittle ice are getting longer. Here, nobody hunts for fun—this is about real survival.
After a few hours we say goodbye to Valdemar with a heavy heart and move on. His contribution to this expedition, and the story we are here to learn, will not go unrecognized.
Slowly, we work our way north.
According to Valdemar, temperatures in the past often ran between -20 and -30 degrees, though I admit that the current -15 degrees is testing my limits. At this temperature, the water does not run off my board, but freezes on top of it, making it slippery—as soon as I change my standing position, even minimally, I begin to slide away. Spikes would be the solution, but not with an inflatable board. I have no choice but to simply stay in the position that I chose in the morning. An exhausting endeavour.
Under these circumstances, among the ice mountains, we slowly move further north. Short naps in the companion boat or in small coastal dwellings interrupt the tour. Miles and miles I work my way forward, sometimes sitting on the boat, when the ice collapses too fast. We have to take long detours if a closed area makes our direct route impossible.
After four days we finally can see the first fragments of the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier appear on the horizon. It's located slightly south of Ilulissat and as of 2004 is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site. The ice tongue daily pushes more than 20 meters into the bay. Even the fragments are impressive and clearly show forces at work.
With between 170 and 200 kilometers of distance covered, ice on the board, frozen fingers, snow on the face, moments of terror next to icebergs, and many detours, which we had to accept, we finally reached the closed ice cover in front of Ilulissat. We can´t get any closer to the glacier without risking our lives—it is unclear if and when a glacier calves.
Tired, broken, and exhausted from the tension of the last days, we reach Ilulissat, the small town on the eastern shore of Disko Bay, approximately 300 km north of the Arctic Circle.
My goal during this paddling trip was to reach the ice border. The fact that this fixed ice limit does not exist anymore has made the conditions there pretty obvious. This tour made two things clear—the climate and the life of the Greenlanders are being threatened. And need to be protected.