Greenland: Canary in the Coal Mine // 46 Photos

Greenland is the world's largest island. The landmass straddles the Arctic Circle and stretches far north into the planet's highest latitudes. Nine tenths of the island's area is covered by ice, a great sheet of frozen water that reaches over 3000 meters above sea level at its centre.

For centuries, this great mass of ice has remained in a state of equilibrium. In the cold, arctic winter, snow falls at the centre and the ice sheet gathers mass. As the weather warms in summer and twenty-four hour sunlight heats the ice, great glaciers at the coastal edge push towering icebergs down long fjords and out, into the surrounding ocean.

In the past ten years, this ancient balance has shifted. Warmer air temperatures in the earth's atmosphere, warmer ocean currents moving along the great Greenlandic coast, and more days of summer sun are all heating up the ice. Glaciers are retreating dramatically, pulling away from the coast and inland toward the island's icy centre. Many glaciers are also accelerating - pushing more ice, faster and faster, into the sea.

The largest of Greenland's 'outlet' glaciers lies at Ilulissat on the West Coast. A UNESCO world heritage site, the glacier has at least doubled its downhill speed in the last ten years. The glacier and ice fjord below carry more water than the Amazon river, and the ice here is now moving toward the ocean faster at this site than anywhere in Greenland.

If the entire ice cap melted, the global sea level would rise by an average of seven meters. Although scientists say an entire melt may take hundreds or even thousands of years, even a partial melt of the Greenland sheet could prove catastrophic for many people in Greenland and further abroad.

Greenland - despite its great landmass - is inhabited by only 56 000 people. The Greenlanders are dispersed throughout towns and small 'settlements' all the way around the country's vast coastline. The great majority of this population is Greenlandic Inuit, and live in small towns of around 50 - 100 people, scattered along the thin strip of 'dry' land between sea and ice.

Fishing is the country's major industry, but industry leaders say the game is changing. Warmer waters are bringing new fish species - over 60 have been reported around the country. In winter, less ice cover is limiting the traditional practice of using dog sleds to travel across the frozen ocean's surface, breaking through the ice and fishing. Greenland's small population are now increasingly sustained by fresh food, and other goods, flown in from Europe and the United States.

Ultimately, the delicate balance of Greenland's natural and human environment is moving out of a fine balance that has been maintained for centuries. The ice cap is pushing more ice into the sea, and the speed of this process is accelerating. The Greenlandic Inuit people, living in balance with their land- and seascape for centuries, are feeling the change. Before long, people living in other places in the world may also notice the flow-on effects of events in today's Greenland.