Greenland’s ‘Big Three’ Glaciers
Today’s flight had to be carefully planned in order to avoid the volcanic ash plume still drifting from Iceland, so we flew to the east coast of Greenland to survey the Helheim glacier first. Glaciologists refer to Helheim glacier as one of ‘The big three’ in Greenland. The ‘big three’ (Helheim, Jakobshavn/Ilulissat and Kangerdlussuaq) are among the largest outlet glaciers in Greenland, and in recent years all are experiencing great change, having sped up significantly and lost mass at a tremendous rate. Scientists think these glaciers are accelerating and changing as a result of the warming climate. A warmer climate causes more snow melt, and as more water becomes available it is funneled down to the bed of the glacier through vents or tubular chutes/holes called moulins. This melt water delivered to the base of the glacier lubricates the bed making the glacier move faster – as fast as 12-14 km/yr.
As I took pictures of Helheim’s calving ice front, the crew on the aircraft watched to see if the glacier would ‘calve an iceberg’. A calving iceberg refers to the breaking off of chunks of ice from the front of the glacier, which then collapse into the sea. This collapse is often associated with a booming sound. Sometimes the chunks of ice are so big that when they break and roll over they are able to move the entire mélange of snow, marine ice, and ice talus in the calving front by a few meters -pushing the glacial material in front like a bulldozer. Much as we all hope the gaciers will slow their steady advance is non-relenting. Below is a picture of the Helheim calving front that I took from onboard the P3 today .
We also flew over Kangerdlussuaq, another of Greenand’s ‘big three’. This beautiful glacier is accelerating at approximately 14 km/yr and thinning rapidly. Below is a picture of Kangerdlussuaq I captured from the P3.
As beautiful as these glaciers are, flying over them is not easy. It’s usually a very bumpy ride as pilots try to stick to the lines flown previously. This is especially important for detecting glacier elevation changes. I have flown over glaciers in a Cessna and single otter as well and although I am always drawn by these mountains and glaciers, none of these flights has ever been easy for me.