In July, 2019 I went to Greenland. I was incredibly excited about this trip, not least because I’ve been semi-obsessed with reading about Polar exploration – Rae, Franklin, Nansen, Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton – since I was a kid, but also because I never thought I’d ever get to go to the Arctic. Though I’ve been to Iceland twice before, by the most common definition, that’s not the Arctic. By that definition, the Arctic is anything north of 66° 34’ N (where I went in Greenland – Ilulissat – is at 69°13’ N), anywhere where at least one day a year the sun never rises and one day a year the sun never sets. By other definitions – north of the tree line, or areas where the average summer temperature is below 10°C – the northernmost parts of Iceland are considered the Arctic. But let’s go with that first definition and say that I went to the Artic for the first time when I visited Greenland in July 2019.
Greenland is massive, but I was only going to sample a tiny bit of it. I went on a photo workshop led by David Burdeny and John Kosmopoulos, based for seven days in the town of Ilulissat on the west coast of Greenland. Ilulissat, and the bay on which it sits - Disko Bay - is famous for the huge concentration of icebergs that can be found there in all seasons.
When I told friends at home that I was going to Greenland, almost everyone said, “I know nothing about Greenland!”, so here are a few interesting facts about Greenland. Greenland is a semi-autonomous province of Denmark (the currency is Danish krone). It is the least densely populated place in the world - just 56,000 people in an area three times the size of Texas. It is the largest island in the world (Australia and Antarctica being continents) - 1,500 miles (2,400kms) long by 700 miles (1,100kms) wide. 85% of the country is covered by the ice sheet, which few people venture onto, so the population is concentrated on the coasts. The ice sheet defies comprehension - it is composed of nearly three quadrillion - that is 3,000,000,000,000,000 - tonnes of ice There are few roads in Greenland - the longest being only 22 miles long - so the only way to get around is by boat/ferry or plane.
The first leg of my journey was an overnight flight from Toronto to Reykjavik. In the afternoon of my only day in Reykjavik, I took a bit of a walk around town, stopping by the famous church of Hallgrimskirkja and the statue of Leif Eiriksson.
It was Leif’s father, Eririk the Red, who was expelled from Iceland and founded the Norse settlements in Greenland in the 10th century. Those settlements in southern Greenland survived until the 15th century when they mysteriously disappeared (they were probably abandoned due to a cooling of the climate, disease or famine but no one is quite sure). Of course Leif Eiriksson is famous for leading the Norse expeditions to North America (500 years before Columbus) and founding the settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, which I visited in 2018 while iceberg hunting there. It’s amazing how all these places - Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland - are connected.
I can’t believe how much Reykjavik has changed in the six years since I last visited. In 2013 it felt like a sleepy little town; now it seems so busy and full of tourists.
That night in Reykjavik most of the workshop group met up with David and John for dinner. It was obvious from the start that it was going to be a great group of fun and accomplished photographers.
The next morning we headed to the domestic terminal in Reykjavik to take our IcelandAir Connect flight to Ilulissat. But it was not to be. After seven hours at the airport, while our plane got delayed over and over again, the flight was cancelled. This was certainly a low point in the trip. This was the third day planes had been cancelled going to Greenland and we worried that perhaps our entire trip would be forfeit, but we headed back into Reykjavik for what we hoped would be only one more night.
After a good night’s sleep, we headed back to the airport the next day and the flight went off without a hitch!
I was mesmerized looking out the window and seeing this place I’ve read about for months!
The whole way, I was glued to my (somewhat opaque) window amazed at the sheer size of the ice sheet as we flew over it.
We checked into the Arctic Hotel - billed as the northernmost four-star hotel in the world - and wandered into Ilulissat for lunch. Ilulissat (which used to be called Jakobshavn) is the third-largest town in Greenland with a population of about 4,500. If there is such a thing as a tourist destination in Greenland, this is it, as Ilulissat (which means icebergs) sits at the point at which the fast-moving Jakobshavn glacier empties into Disko Bay, spawning a wonderful variety of huge icebergs.
The plan was to shoot at night, as in July the sun never sets this far north. Every night we went out in our chartered boat around 10:30pm and got back to town at 1:30am or later.
The night of the first day we arrived there was still a little fog left over from the day before. We headed out at 10:30 and at first we could see a bit, but very soon the fog became pea-soup thick and we had to turn back to port early. Some fishermen, lost in the fog, were very grateful that they could follow us back to safety.
It was pretty eerie out there in the fog, but I wished it had been a little lighter so we could have photographed some of the larger icebergs shrouded in it or that we’d stayed out later, as by the time we got back to the hotel we realized that the fog was finally clearing.
It is theorized that the iceberg that sank the Titanic calved from the Jakobshavn glacier. Not that we were worrying about that out in the fog in the middle of the night!
On the second day of the trip we woke up to every photographer’s worst nightmare: bright blue skies. And it was predicted that skies would remain clear for the rest of the trip, except maybe for the last morning.
So, we went to the icefjord.
The Jakobshavn glacier - which sits at the top of the fjord of the same name - is one of the most active in the world, moving over 60 feet a day. The fjord itself is deep - 3,000 feet deep. The icebergs which calve off the glacier at its head can take months of even years to move down the 40 kilometre fjord to the sea. So much ice pours out of this glacier that between 2000 and 2011 it, alone, was responsible for 1mm of sea level rise. It drains 7% of Greenland's enormous ice sheet (the second largest in the world after Antarctica). The area you see in the first video below, the part nearest the sea, farthest from the front of the glacier, that mix of icebergs, ice and slush is called melange.
The video below is from the very front of the icefjord. At its beginning, where the icebergs calve off the Jakobshavn glacier, the fjord is about 3,000 metres (3 kilometres or 1.9 miles) deep. It becomes much more shallow as it enters the sea, which is why the mélange (a mixture of icebergs, growlers, bergy bits and slush seen above, can get stuck in the fjord for years). If you turn up the volume (sorry for the sniffling) and watch right until the end, you can hear the sound of a humpback whale breaking the surface of the water to breath. I spent a bit of time just sitting on the boardwalk listening to the whales and the creaking of the icebergs. It was magical.
We walked through town and saw (and heard) some of the thousands of sled dogs that live in Ilulissat.
The absolutely gorgeous iceberg below was the star of the show on our second night. That delicate arch was carved when it was in the glacier, before it calved at the head of the icefjord months, if not years, ago. This shot was taken around 1am, when the light was starting to get soft.
Believe it or not, these icebergs are set on a circuitous route which will take a very few of them all the way to Newfoundland, where I went to photograph icebergs in 2018. This will take 2-3 years. These bergs are huge - the sailboats in the shot above give you some idea of the height. By the time they get to Newfoundland, they are much smaller after being battered and bruised on their trip.
One night, at the beginning of our outing at around 10:30pm, we stopped in Oqaatsut, a town up the coast from Ilulissat. Oqaatsut was once called Rodebaai (Red Bay) because its population were whale hunters and whales were regularly butchered in its bay.
Although there were some interesting (and not very appetizing) items on the menu at the Arctic Hotel (whale, seal and such), many of the meals were delicious.
One night we sailed into the icefjord, which was still as glass and quite magical to see.
Some of the beautifully-shaped icebergs we saw on our outings:
In hopes of getting some clouds/overcast soft light, we pushed our last outing to 5am of the morning we left Ilulissat, instead of 10:30 of the night before. As you can see above, we did get some clouds and some softer light. In bright sunshine, icebergs just look white, but in overcast light, all the blues, greens and aquas come out and make them iridescent and gorgeous.
It’s hard to fathom the scale of some of these icebergs but we were lucky that the first mate on our chartered boat (from IceCap Tours) took some drone footage that he was happy to share with us. This is a still from the footage. That boat we’re in - it’s 44 feet long!
You can’t come to Greenland and not think about climate change (or, in my case, read a whole lot about it before you come) and you can’t fly over the vast ice sheet and not wonder what would happen if it all melted (the answer: sea levels would rise 25 feet). The ice sheet is so huge and so heavy that it has depressed the ground level in the center of the island, which now sits 300 feet below sea level. So Greenland is like a bowl – mountains on the coasts, low land in the centre, 85% of it covered by the second-largest ice sheet in the world. The ice flows out through glaciers, like the one we saw at Ilulissat and it evaporates through surface melt. Now, ice has been being shed from Greenland for millennia, but for much of that time, there was balance – about as much ice formed from snowfall as flowed off through glacial calving and surface melt. That isn’t true anymore. The whole planet is warming, but the polar regions are warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet. More of the surface of the ice sheet is melting and evaporating and the glaciers are flowing faster: a recent paper found that those glaciers are flowing much more fast (some nearly twice as fast) as in the 1990s. Frankly, it is terrifying to read some of this – there are certain feedback mechanisms which will speed up this this melting/loss process so that, as Gertner says in The Ice at the End of the World, “the more Greenland melts, the more Greenland melts”. Visiting this amazing place, seeing the shedding of ice at Ilullisat and the sheer size of the ice sheet, makes you realize how massive the scale is. It is both sobering and, quite frankly, very frightening.
Ilulissat was (is) an amazing place. It was wonderful to visit a tiny part of the incredible island of Greenland, to see the massive icebergs and the icefjord. It’s always tough on a trip when your main goal is to get good images, to have such bad luck with conditions - from missing a great day due to our flight being cancelled, to going out in fog that got too dense to see through, to days and days of bright blue skies and harsh light, even in the evening when we went out to shoot (the solar minimum, at 1:30am, was when the light was getting soft). When your images are, to a great extent, condition-dependent, you know that you are at the mercy of those conditions and we just were particularly unlucky. I’d love to go back and explore more of Greenland in hopes of getting more/better images, but even if I never get to go back, I’m deeply grateful for the chance to see what I did.