April 22, 2006

Greenland: The mother of all meltdowns

On this Earth Day, I offer a suggestion for those in power who deny or dodge the reality of global warming: Fly over Greenland.

It’s melting, and that thought, coupled with a view from the air of this unutterably vast icemass, will scare the pants off anyone who thinks continuing to mess around with the earth is no big deal.

The kids and I were flying home from Scotland, and our connecting flight out of Reykjavik, Iceland (photo) took us closer to the Arctic than I’d ever flown before in daylight. I saw the North Atlantic in her frigid, February glory, and, while most of what I saw awed me – gray-green swells lit yellow at their tops by a low, intense sun; tankers and trawlers riding the sickening crests of big-jawed waves; legions of slow-moving, near-frozen whitecaps decorating the black water like winter merinque – some of what I saw terrified me.

We were flying into daylight, and the air was cloudless and crystalline, so as we approached Greenland, every topographical detail jumped out in vivid, frightening relief. Chilled by the clarity of the scene, I gathered my fleece tighter around my shoulders.

When I spied snow-covered Greenland in the distance, I saw between it and us a huge expanse of tall, white structures seemingly built on a thin crust of ice in the gun-metal sea. I was surprised to see what I thought was a manmade community of ice-houses and buildings. But as we got closer, I saw they were behemoth blocks calved from icebergs, stuck in place by the sea, which was frozen solid for about a mile off Greenland’s coast. Nearer the coastline, icebergs as big as office buildings towered above and between waves that were frozen and unmoving. Here, the North Atlantic was a massive, unbroken ice sheet.

We crossed the coastline and began our flight over Greenland proper. Inland ran a range of mountains that looked soft and rounded because they were buried beneath years of thick, virgin drifts. Deceptively beautiful drifts whose depth and remoteness would swallow you silently and make you disappear. A cobalt-veined glacier tracked through the rolling snowscape.

After the coastal range, Greenland became a completely flat, white ice world. As far as you could see. Raw and never-ending. The stark, white, unbroken sheet ran hundreds of miles up to the curvature of the earth and, I knew, beyond... and beyond. The power of the place to intimidate was overwhelming. Then, more mountains, everywhere, infinitely, with giant, blue-fingered glaciers crawling through them. The glaciers’ ends were azure-tinged cliffs, hundreds of feet high.

White-ice Greenland went on for what felt like a lifetime, and I was eager to be away from it. While the kids drew Vikings in their notebooks – Adam’s were heavily armed, and Dana’s had names like “Viking Dog,” “Viking Cat” and “Kelly, the Viking Girl” – I began to feel queasy. Greenland was making me sick.

We’d been bumped to first class, so the flight attendants were attentive – and perceptive: “Excuse me. Would you like a cognac?” I’d never tasted cognac, but it sounded like just the thing to take the scary edge off Greenland.

As I sipped, I wrote this in my journal:

“Greenland has been going on forever. At least the last 45 minutes, and all through dinner. And I just looked at the route map. We are crossing but a minuscule speck of the mass that is Greenland. If this place ever melts, we’re all in big trouble.”