Geology is a science that always reminds me of how small I am. On every time scale and in every location, the Earth is changing whether you can see it or not. Years ago on a geology field class in Wyoming, we hiked to the top of a mountain to see the Yellowstone Caldera, or the volcanoes’ vent. Despite our vantage point and the clear weather, none of us could see it. Then our professor started pointing it out. If you looked to a mountain range a hundred miles distant and followed it to the left or right, the mountains circled back to where we were standing. We were on the rim of the world’s largest volcano and Yellowstone National Park sat in its mouth. I suspect even for the volcanologist, it’s difficult to comprehend the force of the eruption that created that crater. Flying over Greenland is similarly impressive.
I’m seeing sea ice for the first time. The in-flight map shows the plane still several hundred miles from Greenland’s coast, and yet below us is a vast expanse of blinding white ice floating on the ocean like shattered glass. My thoughts are drawn to that cold stretch of the planet below, polar bears hunting seals and narwhals breaching between icebergs. Everything is fighting to survive. Up on the plane with my shoes off and computer out, the drink cart is on its way and I’m going to order another free beer.
Now, the sea ice is gone and the tops of tall rugged mountain jut out from what looks like snowdrifts. This is the beginning of the Greenland Ice Sheet. From the air, Greenland appears like pictures I’ve seen of the Himalayas or Antarctica and looks just as majestic and threatening. I’m not sure how high the peaks are but they are surprisingly close to my vantage point at 36,000 feet.
At its center, the Greenland Ice Sheet is almost two miles thick and covers most of the world’s largest island. Scientists believe that the weight of the ice has pushed much of Greenland’s crust below sea level. This is the Principle of Isostasy, which interestingly is an idea that grew from Darwin’s observations of volcanic barrier-reef islands that appeared to be at different stages of sinking into the ocean. He hypothesized that the crust was not static and that given enough time, whole islands could descend into the sea while the reefs ringing them continued to grow towards the light. Just as most of Canada is still slowly rising after losing its ice sheet after the Pleistocene, Greenland would take tens of thousands of years to rise to its former heights if it lost its ice.
As we come in for landing, we dip below the clouds and I can see the ice sheet transition into land. Out the window are rivers of blocky and broken ice that wind for tens of miles through mountain valleys. Everything is covered with snow. The approach into Kangerlussuaq seems tight, with mountains on either side and there is turbulence. I can’t help but think how crazy it is to want to go camping right here, right now. It makes me nervous. In fact, I think this is the first time I haven’t breathed a sigh of relief upon landing.