An Island That's Living Up to Its Name
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Erik the Red was lonely. Three years into his banishment -- first from Norway, then from Iceland -- for various murders, the redheaded Viking wanted company on the stark island on which he found himself. He invited some countrymen to join him in the place, which -- he assured them -- was "Green Land."
Twenty-five ships from Iceland took up his offer; 14 made it, with several hundred souls. When they arrived around the turn of the first millennium, they found a few patches of grass to give flimsy support for Erik's far-fetched promotion. But he survived their surprise, and the Vikings stayed for more than 400 years before their journey ended in mystery.
Journeys -- and their ends -- come easily to mind as you sit in the sun at midnight on the porch of the Hotel Arctic in Ilulissat, Greenland, sipping a Chilean wine and watching giant icebergs float by below on their own incredible trip.
You have come to see the beginning of their end, hastened on the journey from ice to water by global warming. In few places can you watch the metamorphoses brought by climate change so intimately as you can here, where the fastest glacier in the world delivers spectacular icebergs right to your camera lens.
These imposing structures were laid down as snow perhaps 10,000 years ago, when humans were still hunting the last mastodons with spears and etching on cave walls.
Crushed under the weight of year upon year of new snow, the compacted ice moved. Imperceptibly at first, then by a few inches a year, then a few feet, as it was inexorably drawn into a glacier that siphons the ice cap. This glacier river is a superhighway by comparison, but it still took thousands more years for the ice to reach the edge of the sea.
The massive frozen river ended there, at what is now Baffin Bay, until one summer's day, the wounds of thawing joined to drop a mighty chunk into the sea with a tremorous roar.
And there it is before you: an iceberg millenniums old, blue-cold, spiraled and peaked in frozen artistry. Its own journey will end gently, melting on a slow drift westward to Canada, or from there, on the left-turn leg down into the northern Atlantic Ocean.
Your own journey here is considerably quicker, and made more so by the inauguration in May of the first direct North American flights by Air Greenland from Baltimore. And an increasing number of cruise ships are adding stops in Greenland, a self-governing dependency of Denmark, to their northern Europe routes.
Greenland authorities are hoping travelers from the Americas will come to the world's largest island, which -- despite Erik's aggrandized label -- is 81 percent covered in ice. They will come, officials hope, to see the glorious icebergs, to travel by dog sled across the vast ice cap, to witness endless daylight, to explore the Viking ruins or to hike on the rocky coastline.
After the Vikings vanished, Danes and other Scandinavians eventually returned to join the Inuit who had walked across the ice from Canada 4,500 years ago and prowled the island in small family groups. The descendants of both immigrant groups number about 56,000 and live in towns along the edges and fiords of the island.
It is a huge island, three times the size of Texas. Its length stretches the equivalent distance from Chicago to Los Angeles, and it is 652 miles wide. The Arctic Circle intersects Greenland about a third of the way up the island. Above the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets in the summer (or rises in the winter); below it, there is a summer-twilight version of night for a few hours this time of year.