Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Greenland Equals Ice


Saturday August 16, 2014

It is hard to believe that we have been on our cruise now for a full week. As you recall, because of the ice situation in Canada, we have spent this entire time travelling north along the west coast of Greenland while waiting for conditions to improve along our route through the North West Passage. At this time, conditions while improved are still not favorable enough to insure that we will be able to make the passage, but the decision has been made to leave Greenland behind and to travel to our first stop in Canada, Pond Inlet. The distance to be covered is around 450 miles and will take us about a day and a half. Right now we are therefore cruising west, across what is known as Baffin Bay, and are scheduled to arrive at our port tomorrow about noon.

I wrote to you last on August 12th; at that time, we had spent the night at anchor off the coast from Ilulissat with the hope that the morning weather conditions would improve and allow us to visit this community. They did not improve, and instead we went north to the village of Saqqaq. Over the next several days, our ship explored the coast northward, stopping at several local communities with names I cannot pronounce. We even visited a rather large mining community, but the mine had shut down and was abandoned; we stopped at a place called Qllakitsoq, where in 1972, extremely well preserved mummies were found dating from the 1300’s; and eventually, we reached our northernmost point yesterday, at the community of Upernavik, which is home to around 1,200 people. It is located at 72’ North and 56’ West.

All along our journey we have been surrounded by magnificent scenery and breathtaking icebergs of all shapes and sizes. In fact, I recall on our first day when an iceberg appeared there was jubilation all over the ship, and there was a mad dash to the upper decks to take pictures. Now if you look outside and see “another” iceberg, it is a rather “ho-hum” matter because they are so common now.

Rather than trying to present a running dialogue of each day’s activities, I wanted to step back and look at a somewhat larger picture. In truth, every village we visited had a familiar feeling to it, looking just like the last village we visited. While the typical village or community in Greenland is quite colorful, they only use about five colors to paint their houses and buildings. Since 81% of Greenland is ice, the remaining land lies along the coasts and is a narrow, mountainous, barren and rocky terrain. Believe it or not, Greenland is shown as having 0% arable land, and likewise 0% permanent crops. So each little village, while colorful, seems to cling precariously to the steep rocky terrain. While Greenland is the 12th largest country by landmass, it is home to only 53,000 people. Those small numbers of people are confined to a narrow band of rocky land along the immense shoreline of Greenland where they live in very small communities. The population of Greenland is 89% Inuit, and without question the main source of income is fishing. I wondered just how these small communities could afford to support themselves on fishing alone, particularly when you realize that in winter the sea freezes over and they must use dog sleds to go out on the ice, cut holes, and fish using long baited lines. This is certainly not a large scale operation. Well it seems that Greenland receives large subsidies from Denmark. That is how Air Greenland can afford to operate to these small villages; it is how cellular and internet service is available; and it is where young people go if they want to receive a higher education.

So, I am very thankful for our additional time in Greenland. It has certainly given me a better understanding of this large and exciting land. Now, however, we move west to Canada where we hope we will find a way to make the North West Passage. Every evening we are privileged to receive a briefing on what is coming up. That briefing has included detailed ice charts of our planned passage with a frank discussion of what is happening. I learned something very interesting. The ice chart is not showing the thickness of the sea ice, but rather the percentage of the surface covered by ice. Whereas an icebreaker is designed to “ride up on” the ice sheet, and crush it thus creating a passage. We are in a vessel with an ice hardened hull, where we can “push ice aside” as we go, but that implies that we have somewhere to push the ice. If the ice sheet is solid, then as I witnessed once on this very ship in Antarctica, the ship will go only so far before becoming unable to go further – there is no place to push through. Right now our passage forward is blocked by solid ice sheets, but we are still at least five days away from confronting that issue, and the leadership seems to feel confident that by then the situation will improve. This should be a fascinating experience, and one that I am anxious to share, after all “What a Wonderful World.”


PS Right now we do not have internet service, and so I will be careful to date my musings so that when I can send them, it will make some sense.

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