Blog Archive

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

An Aerial Perspective of Greenland's Icecap, Icefjord, and Icebergs

Our big vacation this year was to the largest island in the world, which has a glacier that produces more icebergs than anywhere except Antarctica.  Greenland is about 30% of the size of the contiguous United States, but only a tiny strip of land along the coast is habitable, since the rest is covered in a giant icecap, which is two and a half miles deep in some places.  The entire country, three times the size of Texas, has about 58,000 people.

If the Greenland icecap melted, earth's sea level would rise by about 20 FEET!  Miami, New York, San Diego, etc. would be mostly underwater.  The ice is melting faster than any time since records began in 1851, but it would still take many years at the current rate.  Let's hope that rate doesn't increase too quickly.

We were going to see the most productive glacier in the Northern Hemisphere, near a town called Ilulissat.  This glacier sends out giant icebergs - around 1500 feet or more tall, with most of that height being underwater.  These icebergs last months, or even years.  They are so large that they can't fit out the mouth of the fjord where they are born until they spend months melting.  The mouth of the fjord is only 900 feet deep, so they can't be deeper than that before floating into the bay.  Eventually, many of them float out into the Altantic.  It was probably an iceberg from this glacier that sank the Titanic.

This first gallery is composed of aerial views of Greenland.  Here's our first glimpse of the east coast of Greenland, seen from the commercial flight from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq.  You can see the mountains, the icecap, glaciers, and icebergs floating out into the sea.

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness vacation tourist tourism travel destination adventure beautiful spectacular

A little closer view.  This glacier is on the southeast of Greenland, the opposite side from where we were headed.  This is much smaller than the one we're going to see.

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness

Here we have the seemingly endless icecap.  Hundreds and hundreds of miles of deep ice, with no land in sight.  A sort of sea of ice.  I think it's cool that the dark areas on the surface of the ice cap are the shadows of the clouds.

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness

In some places, the water formed by melting ice can't flow down to the rock below, and instead forms rivers and lakes on top.

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness

The color of the water is an amazing aqua blue.  Sometimes, these lakes finally melt a hole underneath themselves, and then an entire lake of billions of gallons of water disappears in a matter of hours.  I'd love to see that!


The remaining photos are from our "Air Zafari" over the icecap, icefjord, and icebergs near Ilulissat.  The glacier here is called the Jakobshavn Glacier.  The flight was from 9:30 to 10:30 PM, so the sun was at a low angle, but we were in the land of the midnight sun, so it never got dark during our entire trip.  In other words, for 12 days, we had no nights.


One of our guides described a glacier like this: imagine an ash tray, with indentations for cigarettes along its edge.  Now, start pouring yogurt into the ash tray until the yogurt starts overflowing out of these indentations. The icecap is the yogurt in the middle, and the glaciers are that yogurt oozing out the gaps.  The photo below shows where the icecap leads to a glacier.  To the right is the icecap and to the left is the opening between the mountains where the ice flows down to the sea.

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness

Flying around to a different angle.  The ice sliding toward the water.

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness

Looking down on the seracs, towers of ice on the surface.

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness

Here is where we see the Jakobshavn glacier breaking off and filling the icefjord with ice.  When the front of a glacier breaks off, it's known as calving, like a cow having a calf.  All that ice came from the glacier, and completely covers the surface of the water, so the water is not visible here.  You'll be able to see it in later photos, as we fly toward the mouth of the icefjord.

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness

The ice fjord is over 30 miles long, and almost the entire surface is covered in ice fracturing off the glacier and pushing out toward the sea.  In 1850, the glacier covered the whole 30 miles, but it has receded at an accelerating pace since then.

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness

Here is a very large iceberg - hundreds of feet high.  We know because we were flying at 500 feet, and the top was not that far below us.  And it extends nine times that height below the water - so this monster is taller than the Empire State building.

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness

Now that we're further down the icefjord, we can start to see water in cracks of the surface of the ice.

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness

Here you can see the hills that form the far side of the icefjord, with a large iceberg and some water showing through long cracks in the surface.

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness

The water melting from this iceberg is trapped in a small pond on top of the iceberg itself.  I love the blue color of the water!

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness

We've reached the mouth of the icefjord, where the icebergs have more room to spread out.  You can see a reflection of the iceberg in the water.  This flight was from 9:30 to 10:30 PM, so the sun is low in the sky.  Still, it won't actually go below the horizon!

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness vacation tourist tourism travel destination adventure beautiful spectacular

I love the green color of the ice under the water.

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness

The boat provides some scale, and there's a meltwater pool on the largest iceberg.

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness

Notice the three boats in this one for scale.  The boats are at the ends of lines in the water - their wakes.

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness

Yes, they really are bigger underwater!

Greenland Icefjord iceberg Ilulissat glacier glaciated Denmark aerial adventure climate vacation travel tourism global arctic destination beautiful spectacular pristine nature wilderness

My next article has crazy kids swimming with the icebergs, and gives an impression of village life in Greenland.  My next few galleries will have photos of Inuit village life, hiking to the icefjord, boat rides between the icebergs, whales, and a huge calving glacier.  The best is yet to come!

Related posts for glacier fans: Glacier hike in Norway, and more Norway glaciers.

Top Posts