ILULISSAT, Greenland (Reuters) — Atop Greenland’s Suicide Cliff, from where old Inuit women used to hurl themselves when they felt they had become a burden to their community, a crack and a thud like thunder pierce the air.
“We don’t have thunder here. But I know it from movies,” says Ilulissat nurse Vilhelmina Nathanielsen, who hiked with us through the melting snow. “It’s the ice cracking inside the icebergs. If we’re lucky we might see one break apart.”
It’s too early in the year to see icebergs crumple regularly but the sound is a reminder. As politicians squabble over how to act on climate change, Greenland’s ice cap is melting, and faster than scientists had thought possible.
A new island in East Greenland is a clear sign of how the place is changing. It was dubbed Warming Island by American explorer Dennis Schmitt when he discovered in 2005 that it had emerged from under the retreating ice.
If the ice cap melted entirely, oceans would rise by 23 feet, flooding New York and London, and drowning island nations like the Maldives.
A total meltdown would take centuries but global warming, which climate experts blame mainly on human use of fossil fuels, is heating the Arctic faster than anywhere else on Earth.
“When I was a child, I remember hunters dog-sledding 50 miles on ice across the bay to Disko Island in the winter,” said Judithe Therkildsen, a retiree from Aasiaat, a town south of Ilulissat on Disko Bay.
“That hasn’t happened in a long time.”
Greenland, the world’s largest island, is mostly covered by an ice cap of about 624,000 cubic miles that accounts for a 10th of all the fresh water in the world.
Over the last 30 years, its melt zone has expanded by 30 percent.
“Some people are scared to discover the process is running faster than the models,” said Konrad Steffen, a glaciologist at University of Colorado at Boulder and a Greenland expert who serves on a U.S. government advisory committee on abrupt climate change.