Fighting off the mosquitos in boggy Greenland. Kathryn Adamson, Author provided
The largest wildfire ever recorded in Greenland was recently spotted close to the west coast town of Sisimiut, not far from Disko Island where I research retreating glaciers. The fire has captured public and scientific interest not just because its size and location came as a surprise, but also because it is yet another signpost of deep environmental change in the Arctic.
Greenland is an important cog in the global climate system. The ice sheet which covers 80% of the island reflects so much of the sun’s energy back into space that it moderates temperatures through what is known as the “albedo effect”. And since it occupies a strategic position in the North Atlantic, its meltwater tempers ocean circulation patterns.
But Greenland is especially vulnerable to climate change, as Arctic air temperatures are currently rising at twice the global average rate. Environmental conditions are frequently setting new records: “the warmest”, “the wettest”, “the driest”.
Despite its size, the fire itself represents only a snapshot of Greenland’s fire history. It alone cannot tell us about wider Arctic climate change.
But when we superimpose these extraordinary events onto longer-term environmental records, we can see important trends emerging.
The ice sheet is melting
Between 2002 and 2016 the ice sheet lost mass at a rate of around 269 gigatonnes per year. One gigatonne is one billion tonnes. One tonne is about the weight of a walrus.
During the same period, the ice sheet also showed some unusual short-term behaviour. The 2012 melt season was especially intense – 97% of the ice sheet experienced surface melt at some point during the year. Snow even melted at its summit, the highest point in the centre of the island where the ice is piled up more than 3km above sea level.
In April 2016 Greenland saw abnormally high temperatures and its earliest ever “melt event” (a day in which more than 10% of the ice sheet has at least 1mm of surface melt). Early melting doesn’t usher in a period of complete and catastrophic change – the ice won’t vanish overnight. But it does illustrate how profoundly and rapidly the ice sheet can respond to rising temperatures.
Permafrost is thawing
Despite its icy image, the margins of Greenland are actually quite boggy, complete with swarms of mosquitoes. This is the “active layer”, made up of peaty soil and sediment up to two metres thick, which temporarily thaws during the summer. The underlying permafrost, which can reach depths of 100m, remains permanently frozen.
In Greenland, like much of the Arctic, rising temperatures are thawing the permafrost. This means the active layer is growing by up to 1.5cm per year. This trend is expected to continue, seeing as under current IPCC predictions, Arctic air temperatures will rise by between 2.0°C and 7.5°C this century.
Arctic permafrost contains more than 1,500 billion tonnes of dead plants and animals (around 1,500 billion walrus equivalent) which we call “organic matter”. Right now, this stuff has been frozen for thousands of years. But when the permafrost thaws this organic matter will decay, releasing carbon and methane (another greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere.
If thawing continues, it’s estimated that by 2100 permafrost will emit 850-1,400 billion tonnes of CO₂ equivalent (for comparison: total global emissions in 2012 was 54 billion tonnes of CO₂ equivalent). All that extra methane and carbon of course has the potential to enhance global warming even further.
With this in mind, it is clear to see why the recent wildfire, which was burning in dried-out peat in the active layer, was especially interesting to researchers. If Greenland’s permafrost becomes increasingly degraded and dry, there is the potential for even bigger wildfires which would release vast stores of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Species are adapting to a changing ecosystem
Major changes in the physical environment are already affecting the species that call Greenland home. Just look at polar bears, the face of Arctic climate change. Unlike other bears, polar bears spend most of their time at sea, which explains their Latin name Ursus maritimus. In particular they rely on sea ice as it gives them a deep-water platform from which to hunt seals.
However, since 1979 the extent of sea ice has decreased by around 7.4% per decade due to climate warming, and bears have had to adjust their habitat use. With continued temperature rise and sea ice disappearance, it’s predicted that populations will decline by up to 30% in the next few decades, taking the total number of polar bears to under 9,000.
I have considered only a handful of the major environmental shifts in Greenland over the past few decades, but the effects of increasing temperatures are being felt in all parts of the earth system. Sometimes these are manifest as extreme events, at others as slow and insidious changes.
The different parts of the environmental jigsaw interact, so that changes in one part (sea ice decline, say) influence another (polar bear populations). We need to keep a close eye on the system as a whole if we are to make reliable interpretations – and meaningful plans for the future.
About The Author
Kathryn Adamson, Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography, Manchester Metropolitan University
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Ehrlich unlocks the secrets of this severe land and those who live there; a hardy people who still travel by dogsled and kayak and prefer the mystical four months a year of endless darkness to the gentler summers without night. She discovers the twenty-three words the Inuit have for ice, befriends a polar bear hunter, and comes to agree with the great Danish-Inuit explorer Knud Rasmussen that “all true wisdom is only to be found far from the dwellings of man, in great solitudes.” This Cold Heaven is at once a thrilling adventure story and a meditation on the clarity of life at the extreme edge of the world.
Maps have a mysterious hold over us. Whether ancient, crumbling parchments or generated by Google, maps tell us things we want to know, not only about our current location or where we are going but about the world in general. And yet, when it comes to geo-politics, much of what we are told is generated by analysts and other experts who have neglected to refer to a map of the place in question.
All leaders of nations are constrained by geography. In “one of the best books about geopolitics” (The Evening Standard), now updated to include 2016 geopolitical developments, journalist Tim Marshall examines Russia, China, the US, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Japan, Korea, and Greenland and the Arctic—their weather, seas, mountains, rivers, deserts, and borders—to provide a context often missing from our political reportage: how the physical characteristics of these countries affect their strengths and vulnerabilities and the decisions made by their leaders.
Offering “a fresh way of looking at maps” (The New York Times Book Review), Marshall explains the complex geo-political strategies that shape the globe. Why is Putin so obsessed with Crimea? Why was the US destined to become a global superpower? Why does China’s power base continue to expand? Why is Tibet destined to lose its autonomy? Why will Europe never be united? The answers are geographical. “In an ever more complex, chaotic, and interlinked world, Prisoners of Geography is a concise and useful primer on geopolitics” (Newsweek) and a critical guide to one of the major determining factors in world affairs.
*Includes medieval accounts
*Includes online resources and a bibliography for further reading
Over the centuries, the West has become fascinated by the Vikings, one of the most mysterious and interesting European civilizations. In addition to being perceived as a remarkably unique culture among its European counterparts, what’s known and not known about the Vikings’ accomplishments has added an intriguing aura to the historical narrative. Were they fierce and fearsome warriors? Were they the first Europeans to visit North America? It seems some of the legends are true, and some are just that, legend.
Like many civilizations of past millennia, the Vikings are remembered in popular culture more for the fantastical accounts of their history than for reality. The written records of the history of the Viking period, consisting mostly of Norse sagas, metaphoric poems called skalds and monastic chronicles, were written down well after the events they described and tended to be lurid accounts rife with hyperbole. Furthermore, the most scathing tales of Viking raids are contained in the histories of monastic communities which were targets of Norse rapacity. These chronicles speak of the heathen Viking depredations of monastic treasuries and the ferocious torture and killing of Christian monks. The colorful bloody tales were certainly based on more than grains of truth, but they were also purposefully augmented to inject drama into history. Similarly Norse sagas written down in the post-Viking Age fixed what had hitherto been flexible oral tradition. They were often slanted to legitimize a clan or leader's authority by emphasizing an ancestor's bravery and skill in pillaging opponent's communities.
However, the Vikings’ reputation for ferocious seaborne attacks along the coasts of Northern Europe is no exaggeration. It is true that the Norsemen, who traded extensively throughout Europe, often increased the profits obtained from their nautical ventures through plunder, acquiring precious metals and slaves. Of course, the Vikings were not the only ones participating in this kind of income generation - between the 8th and the 11th centuries, European tribes, clans, kingdoms and monastic communities were quite adept at fighting with each other for the purpose of obtaining booty. The Vikings were simply more consistently successful than their contemporaries and thus became suitable symbols for the iniquity of the times.
The Norsemen were also medieval Europe’s greatest explorers, moving across the North Atlantic to settle in Iceland, Greenland, and even North America. Their settlements in Greenland were perhaps the most impressive, given that the bleak and unforgiving land was mostly uninhabited when they first made it there. Greenland is huge, measuring almost 840,000 square miles (1.35 million square kilometers). The interior is uninhabitable glacier and mountain, but the periphery is cut by countless fjords that shelter the inhabitants from some of the worst of the winds. The fjords in the western part of the island, especially the southwestern part, are made more temperate by relatively warm sea currents and can support grass and a diverse amount of wildlife. Even so, winters are harsh even in the southern latitudes, and ice clogs the northern reaches for much of the year.
Remote, and subject to long winters during which pack ice would cut it off from the rest of the world, Greenland seemed an unlikely place to found a colony. In fact, Greenland was only circumnavigated in the early 20th century, and many of its further reaches were unmapped until the modern day. Nonetheless, the Norse managed to live there for about 450 years among some of their most remote outposts, and Greenland would maintain strong ties to the rest of Europe.