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Notes from an author: Marco Tedesco on climate change in Greenland

Measuring the dramatic changes afoot on this island unveils the mysteries of rising sea levels and the realities of life in this fast-vanishing part of our world.

By Marco Tedesco
Published 11 May 2021, 16:41 BST
Marco Tedesco is a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, adjunct scientist at ...

Marco Tedesco is a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, adjunct scientist at NASA GISS and affiliated professor of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa. 

Photograph by Marco Tedesco

The helicopter is finally taking off. It’s my first time flying like this and, as we start levitating over the sea of icebergs below us, it feels as if a giant is gently picking us up with two fingers. We’re in the coastal town of Ilulissat, Greenland, heading toward the ice fields. As we reach the front of the ice sheet, the greens and blues of drowned icebergs become more vivid. But it isn’t time, yet; white and grey clouds mix with the ice contour. Low visibility, the greatest enemy for a helicopter flying in these locations, forces the pilot to signal what I’d been fearing: we need to head back.

Though grateful for such safety consciousness, I’m disappointed. I’d been preparing for this, for longer than I can remember. But the reward arrives just a few hours later when the fog lifts. Back up in the air, blue skies now crown the majestic ice sheet, and the excitement rises with the possibility that we’ll soon be stepping out onto an alien world. We land, as planned, near one of many supraglacial lakes formed by meltwater collected in topographic depressions. As my boots touch the ‘ground’, such as the ice is, I feel reborn. Left foot first, my right balancing on the helicopter runner, then the right foot: I’m in deepest Greenland.

It took 10 months of preparation and a lifetime of dreams to get here. I move around cautiously as if, at any moment, a beast half-orca, half-wolf could come out from the water, as local Inuit legend narrates. Cryoconite holes, made by windblown glacial dust, scatter the surface like black pearls on a desert of ice. There’s no smell, no sound or noise. Instead, the landscape is filled with hues of blue, grey and white. The solitude that usually accompanies my thoughts dissolves as I become more acquainted with this new sense of simply ‘being’ in such a humbling place; a feeling that will become a friend during summers here.

Our camp is already up, the crew are ready, and there’s nothing, surely, that can stop us now. Yet as we deploy one of our instruments into a supraglacial stream (one of the thousands of waterways that feed Greenland’s lakes with meltwater), a team member slips in. Grasping at the slushy, viscid wet ice with his bare hands, it’s as if Measuring the dramatic changes afoot on this island unveils the mysteries of rising sea levels and the realities of life in this fast-vanishing part of our world he’s being swallowed into the slimy mouth of a monster. Fortunately, he remains within reach; the stream is shallow enough for us to quickly pull him out, shaking from the trauma and the cold of the water. We recover quickly but it’s a reminder of the dangers of exploration here.

“The fragility and vulnerability of the ice sheet is the fragility of our society; of people in developing nations who’ll pay the higher price for changes they’re least responsible for making; of the biodiversity of our planet that’s the recipe for life as we know it”

But it’s vital exploration, sampling snow to study how it turns into ice and in turn what this can tell us about Greenland’s contribution to rising sea levels. We compare the data we collect with that acquired by drones, aeroplanes, satellites and computer models, with the goal to improve our skills, as a species, to do something that other species can barely conceive: anticipate the future. We’ve looked into the infinitesimal world of cryoconite holes, filled with algae, bacteria and strange, resilient microscopic animals such as ‘moss piglets’ (tardigrades), to help understand life in the vast universe in which we all flow.

When I look at the surface of Greenland from a helicopter, I think of the skin of an elephant: rugged, covered in cracks and showing the signs of the inexorable, natural, passing of time. Here, we’re far from the noise of ‘civilisation’, from the fumes of cars and factories, far from cities that scream with evidence of ongoing climate change, from extreme floods and hurricanes. But up here, the violence of man still exists, quietly but swiftly destroying in a few decades the ice that took thousands of years to form.

The fragility and vulnerability of the ice sheet is the fragility of our society; of people in developing nations who’ll pay the higher price for changes they’re least responsible for making; of the biodiversity of our planet that’s the fundamental ingredient for the recipe of life as we know it. I see the face of Greenland being transfigured by us and yet I keep dreaming of the day where this giant could trust us as much as I trusted it when I first stepped onto its delicate surface.

Ice: Tales from a Disappearing World, by Marco Tedesco, is published by Headline, RPP: £14.99. Marco Tedesco is a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, adjunct scientist at NASA GISS, both in New York, and affiliated professor of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, Italy. 

Discover more stories from our Notes from an author series

Published in the May 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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