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Greenland: roar of melting glacier sounds climate change alarm

Greenland's Ilulissat glacier.
by Staff Writers
Ilulissat, Denmark (AFP) Sept 23, 2008
Flying low over the vast, white expanse of Greenland's Ilulissat glacier, one of the biggest and most active in the world, the effects of global warming in the Arctic are painfully visible as the ice melts at an alarming rate.

The helicopter lands on a granite cliff overlooking the Ilulissat ice fjord, or Kangia in Greenlandic, offering a magnificent, panoramic view of elaborate ice formations as they float towards the sea at a rate of two meters (yards) an hour, spilling massive icebergs into the open water.

Off in the distance, huge boulders of ice break off of the imposing Ilulissat glacier, more commonly known by its Greenlandic name Sermeq Kujalleq, creating a thunderous roar as the glacier recedes in one of the planet's most striking examples of global warming.

"The ice in some places on the coast is now melting four times faster than before," says Abbas Khan, a Dane who studies the movements of Greenland's glaciers at the Danish Space Centre.

The Ilulissat glacier and icefjord have been on UNESCO's world heritage list since 2004 and is the most visited site in Greenland, its ice and pools of emerald-blue water admired by tourists and studied by scientists and politicians around the world.

The glacier is the most active in the northern hemisphere, producing 10 percent of Greenland's icebergs, or some 20 million tonnes of ice per day.

But the glacier is in bad shape, experts warn.

Recent estimates by US scientists who study NASA's satellite images daily show that it is rapidly disintegrating.

It has shrunk more than 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) in the past five years, and is now smaller than it has ever been in the 150 years of observation and topographical data.

According to professor Jason Box and his team from the department of geography at Ohio State University, the Ilulissat glacier may not have been this small in 6,000 years.

-- 'We can't fish and hunt like before' --


Radars, satellites and GPS tracking have shown that the glaciers in Greenland's southern and western parts are now melting twice as fast as they did two or three years ago, and four times as fast on the east of the island, according to professor Soeren Rysgaard of the Greenlandic Institute of Natural Resources.

"Less ice around Greenland facilitates and accelerates the calving process where chunks of ice break off the glaciers and spill into the sea," Rysgaard said.

The melting ice is both a consequence and a cause of global warming: ice reflects heat, as opposed to water which absorbs it and warms up the climate, thus causing more glaciers and snow to melt.

In the village of Ilulissat, 250 kilometres (155 miles) north of the Arctic Circle, colourful wooden houses line the shores of Disko Bay, its waters dotted with icebergs bathed in the golden light of the late summer sun.

The 4,500 residents have seen the effects of global warming with their own eyes.

Fishermen and hunters say the ice has become thinner in the past decade.

"We can't fish and hunt like before. That's a fact," says Erik Bjerregaard, the manager of a local hotel who like many other locals has his own dogs for sleddog treks each winter.

In the port, one of Greenland's biggest for shrimp and halibut fishing, shrimp fishermen have to go further and further afield in order to get a decent catch, while halibut are threatened by an increasing number of whales.

"Because of the warmer climate, there are more and more whales, like the humpback whale which is a big eater of plankton," says fisherman Karl Thomasson, noting that halibut also feed on the ever-scarcer plankton.

According to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), the size of the Arctic ice cap hit a low this year of 4.52 million square kilometres (1.75 million square miles) on September 12.

That is close to the record low of 4.13 million square kilometres registered last year, and far from the around 7.7 million observed each year from 1979, when the NSIDC began taking satellite images of the ice, to 2000.

Researchers have calculated that Greenland's glaciers will this year throw up to 220 cubic kilometers (52.7 cubic miles) of ice into the sea, contributing to a rise of the world's sea levels.

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Greenland's ice cap melting faster than expected: experts
Copenhagen (AFP) Sept 22, 2008
Greenland's ice cap, which covers more than 80 percent of the island, is melting faster than expected because of global warming, a Danish researcher said on Monday.

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