Science, Tech & Environment

PHOTOS: Up close and personal with Greenland’s massive ice sheet

A red helicopter is shown landed on the Greenland ice sheet with team of three professors and three students unload their gear.

A team of three professors and three students unload a helicopter at their research site on the Greenland ice sheet.The team is studying ice sheet dynamics, or the ways the ice sheet moves slowly over the rock beneath it and into the sea.

Credit:

Amy Martin/Threshold

This story is part of our series The Big Melt. It comes to us through a partnership with the podcast and radio program Threshold, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center.

Greenland’s ice sheet seems to stretch out forever. It slowly rises from the edge of the ocean to more than 10,000 feet in the center. Some of the ice is more than a hundred thousand years old and all of it originally fell here as snow. The research team shown here are trying to figure out just how this mountain of ice is moving into the sea, and how fast.

As we warm the planet, we're knocking this ice sheet out of balance — it’s losing more ice than it’s gaining. And that has big implications for rising sea levels. Six hundred million people live in coastal areas less than 32 feet above sea level. As the Greenland ice sheet melts away, an awful lot of those people are going to have to find somewhere else to live. That's a recipe for intense societal disruption — hunger, disease and conflict.

Related: As Greenland’s ice sheet melts, scientists push to learn ‘how fast’

Students Rosie Leone, Aidan Stansberry and Ian MacDowell  are shown bundled in artic-ready clothing and walking across the ice.

"Team Radar" at work. Students Rosie Leone, Aidan Stansberry and Ian MacDowell spent most of their five days on the ice using radar to map the bed — the rock and soil hundreds of feet below the ice sheet — which can affect the movement of the ice sheet.

Credit:

Amy Martin/Threshold

A winding flow of water is shown on the Greenland ice sheet

Some of the surface of the Greenland ice sheet melts every summer, forming streams, rivers and lakes that often empty into holes and fissures. This is a normal process, but as humans warm the planet, surface melt is increasing and more water is flowing off the ice sheet than is accumulating. If the entire ice sheet melted, it would cause sea level to rise roughly 23 feet, inundating coastal areas around the world.

Credit:

Amy Martin/Threshold

University of Montana glaciologist Joel Harper is shown knealing next to a deep crack in the ice sheet called a crevasse.

University of Montana glaciologist Joel Harper examines a deep crack in the ice sheet called a crevasse. His team of researchers is studying how the ice sheet moves, how quickly it might melt into the sea as the planet warms up, and how meltwater flowing into openings on its surface might contribute to that.

Credit:

Amy Martin/Threshold

University of Montana glaciologist Joel Harper's students are working on mapping the ice sheet bed with radar.

How does the shape of the underlying bed change how this enormous ice cube moves? That’s one of the questions this team is trying to answer. But the Greenland ice sheet is 10,000 feet thick in the center. “You can't go there. You can't see it. It's really hard to put instruments there,” Harper says. That’s why he has his students working on mapping the bed with radar. “We're just doing basic research trying to understand more about how the ice moves,” he says.

Credit:

Amy Martin/Threshold

Glaciologist Joel Harper's team stays in tents right on the Greenland ice sheet

The work these scientists are doing intersects with a basic fact of human psychology: change is hard, and the faster the change, the harder it is. “It's all about the rate,” glaciologist Joel Harper says, and whether society will have more time or less to respond to a drastic rise in sea levels. “You know, if it takes three or four millennia to get a large amount of melt from Greenland into the ocean that's a completely different societal issue if its a century, or two, or three.”

Credit:

Amy Martin/Threshold

The crew gathered is shown lounging in chairs for meals in a tent on the ice.

The crew gathered for meals in a tent on the ice. University of Montana graduate student Rosie Leone says doing field work with her mentors is great experience for her future career in the sciences. She’s aiming to work as a hydrologist.

Credit:

Amy Martin/Threshold

University of Wyoming glaciologist Neil Humphrey works on one of the tiny sensors the team sent down through a bore hole to collect information about the ice sheet bed.

University of Wyoming glaciologist Neil Humphrey works on one of the tiny sensors the team sent down through a bore hole to collect information about the ice sheet bed. The Arctic may seem remote, Humphrey says, but changes here affect the whole planet. “We're talking about raising sea level 10, 20 feet. You're going to displace hundreds of millions of people. They're going to be upset. They're going to want to go somewhere better. A guaranteed way to end up needing to fight wars is to have millions of people displaced and angry ... This seems like a disaster that one might want to avoid.”

Credit:

Amy Martin/Threshold

After five days of intense work, the team from the universities of Montana and Wyoming team packed up all the tents, food and gear, and waited for the helicopter to come pick them up.

Workdays are long on research trips to the Greenland ice sheet. After five days of intense work, the team from the universities of Montana and Wyoming team packed up all the tents, food and gear, and waited for the helicopter to come pick them up. It was one of the only moments when the team had time to relax and take in the wonder of the place.

Credit:

Amy Martin/Threshold

 

The logo for the Podcast Threshold

Amy Martin is the executive producer of the podcast and radio program Threshold

Read more in The Big Melt series: 

An environmental newspaper fights for press freedom in the Russian Arctic
As the Arctic warms up, a 'new ocean' is bringing new commerce to the top of the world
Ice is us: Alaska Natives face the demise of the Arctic ice pack
The Arctic's Sámi people push for a sustainable Norway
Arctic permafrost is starting to thaw. Here’s why we should all care.
An Alaskan village is falling into the sea. Washington is looking the other way. 
In Iceland, a shifting sculpture for a changing Arctic
Take our Arctic quiz.   

 

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