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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Konrad Steffen, Greenland Melting -- The End of the End of the World -- A Report From the Ground Zero of Global Warming

by Mark Binelli, Rolling Stone Magazine, July 10, 2008

For a few minutes, the only sound is the shovels cutting into the pit. There are four grad students digging. They work from inside the hole, which is waist-deep but too stretched — about 15 feet — to make you think of a grave. It looks more like an archaeological excavation.

Liam Colgan, one of the grad students, stops and leans on his shovel and says, "It's retardedly hot right now."

Another grad student, Dan McGrath, who is from White Plains, New York, glances over his shoulder and says, "I feel like I'm at Jones Beach."

Colgan says, "This is enjoyably warm."

It's actually only a few degrees above freezing. But given the fact that it is early May and we are standing in the middle of the Greenland ice sheet, at a point approximately 3.5 latitudinal degrees — 155 miles — north of the Arctic Circle, then yes, it's hot: enjoyably, retardedly, unnaturally, ill-bodingly, possibly panic-inducingly so. Last summer's melt season in Greenland was the most severe on record, and it didn't get this warm until June.

We've all shed our hats and gloves and stripped off several layers of North Face and fleece. I've pushed up the sleeves of the two thermal undershirts I'm wearing, but I still feel sweaty, and I'm not even digging. All afternoon, the sun has been simultaneously beating down on our heads and reflecting back into our faces. The glare off the endless white of the glacier makes mirrored goggles and copious amounts of sunblock a necessity.

Colgan, the joker of the group, has smeared his face with zinc, leaving thick white streaks that make him look like an improperly rinsed clown. A first-year Ph.D. candidate from Toronto, he cheerily complains, "It's funny how you study so hard to be a glaciologist and then you come here and end up doing the work of a rural Chinese laborer. Yesterday I was hauling buckets of snow over a hill."

Konrad Steffen, a professor of geography at the University of Colorado, stands at the edge of the pit, smoking a cigarette, his legs spread and planted like two-thirds of a tripod. Steffen has traveled to Greenland every spring since 1990. A large portion of his fieldwork involves maintaining the 22 weather towers he's set up at various points on the ice sheet. The towers, which look like antennae jutting out of the snow, continuously record climate data.

Steffen was born in Zurich, and he speaks in a thick Swiss-German accent. He's tall and gangly, with skin that's been leathered by years of polar curing and the sort of wild beard favored by homeless men, sea captains and extras on Deadwood. With his long, thin face, the public figure Steffen most brings to mind is John Kerry, if Kerry were an 18th-century fur trapper.

Growing up near the Alps, Steffen always loved skiing and mountaineering. He originally came to Greenland to measure, in the most basic sense, ways in which the climate interacts with ice. The research was always interesting (to him, at least), but not the sort that carried major geopolitical, future-of-humanity implications. "I did not come to Greenland because I thought there was warming or a fast melt," he says.

But since the mid-Nineties, Steffen has recorded a steady, increasingly distressing upswing in temperature. "Before last year, 2005 was the biggest melt year," Steffen says. "And before that, 2002 was the biggest in the past 30 years. So we break a record every two or three years now." Nodding at the pit, he says, "Towers fall over from the melt. Usually we could know how deep to dig so they would stand, but that has all changed."

The students angle their shovels under the long central shaft and try to keep from damaging the assorted devices — solar panels, ball-shaped radiometers, a spinning propeller to measure wind velocity, a snow sensor that resembles a steel thermos — attached to the protruding metal arms. More than archaeologists now, the students seem like characters in a science-fiction movie who have just stumbled across something disturbing: an artifact from some advanced civilization that is not their own, one that didn't make it.

Historically, Greenland has never been a terrific draw for outsiders. The vast central region of the country is uninhabitable ice. In winter, it can be dark for months on end. Even today, there are no roads connecting the major population centers, so flying remains the most practical way to get around the country. Ilulissat, the gorgeous coastal town that's become Greenland's primary tourist destination, has more sled dogs than humans.

Despite all of this, in the past few years Greenland has attracted more visitors and international attention than ever — thanks almost solely to global warming. Because the effects of warming can be seen most intensely in the Arctic, where temperatures have been rising twice as fast as in the rest of the world, Greenland has become synonymous with climate change. This, naturally, has drawn an increasing number of researchers attempting to study and (hopefully) slow or halt the disintegration of the ice sheet, along with reporters looking for dramatic ways to illustrate complicated, science-heavy stories, politicians on photogenic fact-finding missions (Nancy Pelosi and a congressional delegation visited Steffen's camp in spring '07) and ecotourists hoping to catch one last glimpse of an endangered species (in this case, the metaphorical species being an entire country on the verge of melting).

Humans being humans, the change has also drawn people looking to make a buck — in particular, oil and mineral prospectors. No one is exactly sure what lies beneath the 81 percent of Greenland that is covered in ice. But the melt is making it exponentially easier to find out. In 2004, when the U.K. mining company Crew Gold Corp. opened the Nalunaq gold mine, it was Greenland's first new mine in more than 30 years; by last year, 78 mineral-exploration licenses had been granted to about 30 companies. According to the London newspaper The Independent, the entire flying capacity of Air Greenland was booked by prospectors for much of last summer. Aside from oil and gold, they've come looking for diamonds, zinc, lead, silver, zirconium and other squares on the periodic table (niobium, molybdenum) you've never heard of. "The last five years," an Air Greenland pilot tells me, "it's become a modern Klondike."

It's rare that a disaster happens with enough advance warning to allow for observation in real time. We think of natural disasters as sudden, brutal things; entering a "disaster zone" usually implies after-the-fact, a surveying of the wreckage. It's not often you can walk around inside a disaster as it's occurring, talk to the future survivors (and casualties, and profiteers), make sure the light is perfect for capturing the collapse. Greenland, as ground zero of the climate crisis, is one of those disasters, and that is why so many divergent interests are converging here right now. Who doesn't want to see the future?

Although it is the largest island in the world, roughly the size of all 26 states east of the Mississippi, Greenland has a minuscule population — only about 56,000 people. Historically, visitors have made the difficult trek for a number of reasons. The present-day Inuit population, originally hunters from Central Asia, most likely arrived about 5,000 years ago. Vikings showed up around 985, led by Erik the Red, who supposedly christened the country "the Green Land" in order to trick other Nordic settlers into joining him. (This may be the first recorded instance of a real-estate naming scam.) In the 17th century, European whalers began prowling the coast, ultimately decimating the bowhead-whale and walrus populations. The Danish colonized Greenland in the 18th century and imposed restrictive trade agreements; Greenland remains part of the United Kingdom of Denmark, though the country moved to a semiautonomous home-rule agreement in 1979. The United States set up several military bases in Greenland during the World War II era, including the still-operational Thule Air Base. During the Cold War, an American B-52 bomber flying over Thule crashed off the coast; documents made public eight years ago revealed that one of the hydrogen bombs the plane was carrying has never been recovered. (The U.S. government has not acknowledged that this might have something to do with the cleanup crew's high cancer rates.) And, of course, explorers like Robert Peary came to test their mettle against the harsh climate and win the race to the North Pole. In 1897, Peary also brought six Inuits back to New York, where they were housed in the basement of the Museum of Natural History. Four quickly died; a seven-year-old boy named Minik survived, only to learn that the museum buried an empty casket at his father's "funeral" and kept the body for its collection. In 1909, when Peary finally claimed to have reached the Pole, the San Francisco Examiner interviewed Minik, then 19. The headline was "Why Arctic Explorer Peary's Neglected Eskimo Boy Wants to Shoot Him."

Today, Ilulissat is the third-largest town in Greenland, with a population of about 4,500. As I fly into western Greenland on a tiny Dash 7 propeller plane, the terrain below is gray-brown tundra, lightly streaked with snow, a ratio that reverses as we approach Ilulissat. We pass frozen lakes of various sizes. The edges have begun to melt, so the lakes look as if a child has poorly attempted to trace their outline with a thick marker. It is an incredibly clear afternoon, and the shadow of the airplane floats over the blasted-looking terrain below like an evil black bird.

To counter the monotony of the landscape, Greenlanders paint their buildings garish colors. Ilulissat, from the air, looks like a toy town on a hill. The houses are barn red, sunflower yellow, Dodger blue.

Ilulissat overlooks Disko Bay, which is fed by the Jakobshavn Isbræ, the fastest-moving glacier in the world. Greenland's central ice sheet is always moving, resulting in "outlet glaciers" like Jakobshavn, which disgorges massive icebergs through the fjord and into Disko Bay, where they make their way to the ocean. (The iceberg that sank the Titanic likely took this path.) The view of the bay from Ilulissat, which means "the icebergs," is one of the most spectacular sights in the world. Some of the icebergs are the size of islands; others look like gleaming pottery shards. Though "fast-moving glacier" sounds like an oxymoron, the postcard view of the bay you admire before closing your curtains at night (which still looks like day, so you have to close your curtains very tight) will be completely different from the postcard view greeting you in the morning.

At the end of May, a group of diplomats came to Ilulissat to discuss the spoils of global warming. The closed-door meetings involved representatives from five Arctic coastal nations — the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway — and centered on competing oil and gas rights in the polar seabed. A recent dispute has centered on the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range that stretches from the coasts of Siberia, Greenland and the Canadian Arctic across the North Pole. Russia, Denmark and Canada all claim the ridge as a submerged extension of their national landmasses, which would technically give them ownership of whatever else lies hidden beneath. Last summer, the Russians, to the profound irritation of the rest of the world, sent a submarine to plant a titanium underwater flag on the ridge, which could contain 10 billion tons of oil, along with gold, nickel and diamonds. By some estimates, the Arctic holds a quarter of the world's untapped oil and gas reserves.

There is a profound irony, of course, in the fact that easier access to new oil has been made possible thanks to global warming — thanks, that is, to the wanton burning of old oil. The choice of Ilulissat as host city for the summit also feels like a dark joke. In 2004, UNESCO placed the Jakobshavn Isbræ on its World Heritage List; in the past 10 years, the speed of the glacier's movement has doubled, almost certainly because of climate change. Jakobshavn currently loses 20 million tons of ice per day, which is the amount of water used by New York City in an entire year.

The winters have also grown milder. In the past, Disko Bay would freeze over entirely. (One Ilulissat local tells me taxis used to take shortcuts over the ice.) But with the exception of this past winter, which was unusually cold, the bay hasn't frozen in years. Inuits once drove their sleds onto the ice to hunt seals, but now sled dogs are going hungry and even being shot by their owners. Around Ilulissat, you see dogs everywhere, mostly chained to rocks (two per rock, as they're mean and will fight), looking filthy and matted. Tourists have to be warned to keep their distance.

Despite the increase in summer tourism, off-season Ilulissat still has the slightly desperate, lawless feel of a frontier town. Walking around, I notice a torn flier for a band called Peep Durple. A man with a scope-mounted rifle slung over his back strolls past a bright-blue public-housing complex. Across the street, two kids play on a steep second-story roof, one of them brandishing a sled-dog whip. (I'm not sure if the kid is supposed to be Indiana Jones or a guy mushing his sled dogs.) On a distant hill, a lone man shovels snow in front of his house, which, in Greenland, feels like a deeply existential act.

One night around 10:00, I duck into the hotel bar. It's still bright light outside. The bar is a dive, and everyone inside is wildly drunk. There's a menace in the air. Greenland has inordinately high alcoholism and suicide rates. Later, someone tells me about a friend's 12-year-old who shot himself through the mouth.

In the bar, they play Eighties MTV hits: Dire Straits, the Police, Tina Turner. The fact that it's still daylight out makes the level of drunkenness collectively attained by this room feel especially debauched, almost deranged. Carlsberg beer bottles cover every surface of every table. One woman is passed out in a booth, sitting straight up. Another, quite a bit older, sidles over to the bar and asks me something in Greenlandic. She eventually tries to hold my hand. I pretend to be confused and slap her five, then immediately feel like a jerk, although she's so hammered she doesn't even notice and wanders away.

The following evening, I have dinner at the much fancier Hotel Arctic, recently renovated and currently adding a new conference center. A cluster of luxury silver igloos available for rent lines the hill below the hotel. In the upscale restaurant, they're playing Leonard Cohen's greatest hits, and one of the appetizers is smoked whale carpaccio with a pesto garnish. (Actually very delicious; tastes like beef.) A jazz trio is playing "The Girl From Ipanema" on the deck. The guitarist, who is Greenlandic, tells me, "When Denmark came here, we had very quick development. Greenlanders were nature people, and they hardly knew what was happening. For a lot of years, they were strangers in their own country."

Ilulissat is already experiencing some of the economic benefits of disappearing ice. Local halibut fishermen have been pulling in record catches, and tourism, now the town's main growth industry, has been boosted dramatically by the ability of cruise ships to dock more easily in Arctic waters. One afternoon, I take a boat ride around Disko Bay to check out the icebergs up close.

Our fishing boat is piloted by a skinny Greenlander with a wispy catfish mustache. Greenlandic pop music faintly emanates from a Panasonic car stereo installed in the wheelhouse. The water is so clear and blue, birds flying low seem to be racing their own reflections. Leaning out against the railing, the passengers snap photographs of the icebergs as we noisily motor past. The massive, arena-size icebergs look strangely dry, almost like marzipan. The smaller chunks of glacier look like regular, wet ice. The tiniest shards are scattered all over the surface of the water, like confetti after a parade.

It's a strange feeling to be confronted with so much natural beauty and yet at the same time know you have essentially traveled to the end of the world — which is how the ancient Greeks thought of the Far North: "Hyperborea," a magical land free of disease and old age — in order to contemplate the end of the world. Or at least to contemplate the end of Greenland. Which I guess technically would be the end of the end of the world.

Eventually, we stop at a settlement much tinier than Ilulissat, about an hour up the coast. Our guide informs us the town's population is 48. He says we have about an hour to explore, and then he disappears. It's impossible not to feel like a bit of a prick when wandering around a population-48 traditional fishing village as part of a packaged tourist outing. Thankfully, it's lunchtime, and most people seem to be indoors. Someone eventually drives by on a snowmobile, prompting one of the guys on our tour, a German in his forties with a soul patch, to grin and say, "Rush hour!"

On the ride back, I realize the strangest thing about the boat ride is the simple action of staring endlessly at the icebergs — at these floating, inert objects — from a moving vehicle. It feels like being on safari, only all of the animals are dead.

Swiss Camp, Konrad Steffen's research station, is a 27-minute helicopter ride from Ilulissat. Once we fly over the mountains, the terrain quickly gives way to ice and snow and nothing else. The change is stunning, as is the utter isolation of Swiss Camp. Being on the ice sheet is like standing on an empty beach — that feeling-puny-on-the-edge-of-an-awesome-vastness sort of feeling. Only in this case, you're standing in the middle of the ocean, and it's frozen. Every direction is nothing but unobstructed horizon, as far as vision allows: nothing but a faint line dividing snow and sky.

The camp itself comprises three large domed tents set on a wooden platform. To enter the tents, you trudge to the top of a mound of snow and descend through a wooden hatch. This entrance was added to the camp in 1993 under the assumption that when researchers arrived in the spring, the tents would be buried in snow. But that hasn't happened for several years.

Steffen ended up in Greenland by chance. He'd been doing research in China in the late Eighties and had been scheduled to begin a climate study in Tibet. But at the last minute, the Chinese government demanded exorbitant fees, so Steffen, still working out of a Swiss university, shifted his focus to Greenland. The project was meant to last only two seasons. But in 1992, Swiss Camp was completely snowed in. By law, Steffen's staffers were required to remove the station from the ice when they'd finished their research, but excavating it was impossible. Steffen was getting ready to leave the university, and the school offered to sell him Swiss Camp for one dollar. "I called my new program manager," Steffen recalls, "and said, 'I have this great deal. . . .' "

Buying Swiss Camp has allowed Steffen to return to the same site each year, a rare thing in fieldwork. "You never stay 10 or 15 years in one place," Steffen says. "But we have been able to study the changes here for this entire period, which is exceptional." Steffen has continuous measurements from his weather stations since 1990. They record data every 15 seconds. The winter temperature over that time period has increased by nearly eight degrees Fahrenheit.

When Swiss Camp was built, its latitude was considered the "equilibrium line," the point at which the amount of snowfall every year equals the amount of melt, so the total amount of snow on the ground remains relatively constant. But the equilibrium line has been moving steadily northward, and now melt far exceeds snowfall. This is why Steffen's weather stations fell over, and why the entire platform upon which Swiss Camp rests is threatening to topple.

Inside, each tent is about the size of a college dorm room. Only two of the three tents are heated. Everyone spends most of the time in the crowded kitchen tent, which has a small propane camping stove, a bread machine, makeshift shelving units containing the season's food supplies (mostly purchased by Steffen and his students during a single massive shopping trip in Boulder, Colorado, and then shipped out in giant yellow crates, some of which are still sitting out in the snow when I arrive) and a long homemade plywood table surrounded by folding chairs.

Other pertinent facts: To make drinking water, it is necessary to melt snow; the snow is stored in a barrel kept next to the stove and melted in the sort of pot normally used to cook spaghetti. For this reason, it's very important to keep the latrine areas well-segregated from the snow-to-be-melted-for-drinking-water areas. There are two latrine areas: the "pee pole," which is exactly what it sounds like, and the "shigloo," about which the less said, the better. (I'll just mention that the "igloo" part of the shigloo is U-shaped, waist-high and otherwise open-air.) The sleeping at Swiss Camp is done on cots in unheated, single-occupancy camping tents, set up in three rows at the base of the hill. Upon entering your tent, it's highly advisable to zip yourself into your sleeping bag as quickly as possible, preferably without removing many layers of clothing. (Definitely not your hat.) In the morning, your water bottle probably will have frozen. When the wind buffets the tent, it feels like you're in a ship battered by a storm. The side and back walls pulsate wildly, as if people were standing outside trying to shake you out the front flap.

Swiss Camp is funded partly by NASA, thanks to Steffen's colleague Jay Zwally. In the Nineties, Zwally began setting up GPS units around Greenland to measure the movement of the ice. Scientists once assumed that the ice sheet moved at a uniform speed throughout the year, but Zwally has proved that, in fact, the ice sheet can move at a faster pace during the summer. This is happening, he believes, because surface meltwater is rapidly draining into and beneath the glacier, through enormous melt holes called moulins. Once the meltwater reaches the bedrock below, it lubricates the underside of the ice — according to Zwally's calculations, the ice sheet, buoyed by this water, rises six inches during the melt — and speeding the ice's journey to the ocean. This is called the Zwally Effect.

There are seven researchers at Swiss Camp this season. Alberto Behar, who works for NASA, designed moulin-filming equipment (he's also helped develop Mars rovers). Thomas Phillips, a Swiss glaciologist, says his friends back home call him "the Prophet of Doom." Kevin Sampson, an earnest, bearded Ph.D. student from Northern California, has spent three field seasons here, which makes him the veteran grad student and might explain why he's the one who came up with the idea to make Swiss Camp margaritas with tequila, powdered Country Time lemonade and glacier ice.

Everyone calls Steffen "Koni." Some people pronounce it like the woman's name ("Connie"), others like the island ("Coney"). Like other native German speakers — Arnold Schwarzenegger comes to mind — Steffen, 56, pronounces his words with such guttural, melodious zeal that every sentence sounds like he's just taken a bite of an especially delicious sandwich. Even when he's detailing some grim new data, the heartiness of Steffen's delivery makes him sound vaguely delighted by the new challenge. While explaining the equilibrium line, he says, "It's moved way up!" in the tone he might use to tell me I'd just been awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant.

At the moment, Zwally is sitting in the corner of the kitchen tent with his laptop, trying to connect to the Internet via satellite. "I wish I never got this fucking thing," he says.

Steffen grins at me and says, "He likes to talk science!"

Zwally looks up and says, "If you're offended by cursing or disparaging remarks about the Bush administration or the occasional blasphemy, please tell me now."

(A few moments later, as if to affirm this warning, Zwally says, "I saw this chick on a motorcycle the other day." Steffen: "What?" Zwally: "Girl." Steffen: "He went from worse to still bad!" Zwally: "I saw this woman and I thought, 'I need to get me one of those.' " He's talking about the motorcycle.)

At 69, Zwally is the senior member of the expedition. He's also the only member with an earring: a silver dolphin, in his left ear. (He got his ear pierced for his 60th birthday.) Zwally often has a distracted, deeply skeptical frown on his face, though it quickly becomes clear he's a consummate mischief-maker with strong opinions and a sharp sense of humor. If dinner conversation grows too polite, he is not above shouting a blunt yet truthful non sequitur, such as "Dick Cheney is the Antichrist!" Zwally is also the master chef at Swiss Camp. The first thing he asks upon my arrival is whether I'll eat lobster tails. Much of each day at the camp is spent snacking: energy bars, Wasa crackers, trail mix, Toblerone, Gruyère, Special K, Gallo Salame sliced pepperoni, Oberto hickory-flavored beef jerky, bar nuts, Müeslix. But the evening meals are mandatorily elaborate. Steffen believes leisurely dinner conversation is a necessary civilizing factor when conducting fieldwork.

To that end, my first evening at Swiss Camp, we finish two bottles of wine and an entire bottle of Jameson whiskey that I brought as a gift. (Zwally doesn't help with the Jameson; he's got his own bottle of Rebel Yell.) The level of conversation devolves accordingly. Zwally pulls up a photograph of himself on his laptop from the previous field season; he's riding a snowmobile around Swiss Camp completely nude. The caption on his computer reads "Godiva on Ice." Colgan tells a joke. It begins, "Two functions are walking down the street. They meet a derivative. . . ." Behar says, "How do you beat the chicks off?"

Someone mentions a statistical analysis of Florida hurricanes that proved Bush-voting counties were inordinately hit. "Every once in a while," Zwally says, "something happens where I think, 'Maybe there is a God.' "

We make our way out to the tents around 1:00 in the morning. The sun has dipped just below the horizon, but it's not dark, more like a notch brighter than twilight. In the distance, the horizon has gone fuzzy with a pinkish glow, and the snow has a blue tint. It feels like we're standing on the surface of the moon.

This field season, the main expeditionary goal involves lowering data-collecting instruments — and possibly Steffen himself — into a moulin. The plan, Steffen's idea, is potentially quite dangerous. The Greenland ice sheet is about 1.6 miles thick, and the moulins, with mouths as wide as 33 feet, drain all the way to the bottom. In summer, the melt rushes down with the force of a waterfall. "Think of a moulin as a black hole," says Sampson. "Stuff goes in, but you don't know exactly where, or what's inside." Adding to the difficulty, the moulin Steffen plans to enter has been completely buried by the winter snow.

Scientists once believed ice sheets, because of their sheer size, would take hundreds of years to lose significant mass to warming. A paper published by Steffen, Zwally and four others in 2002, combining Steffen's research on temperature with Zwally's data on the speed of the flow, punctured this notion. Most scientists agree it would still take centuries for Greenland's ice sheet to completely disappear. But once the melt reaches a certain level, an irreversible feedback loop will kick in, after which the total disintegration of the ice sheet will be impossible to stop. A total melt would raise the sea level by 23 feet.

But the ice sheet does not have to melt entirely to cause global calamity. If Greenland continues to warm at its current pace, the sea level could rise as much as three feet by 2100. This would flood coastal cities like New York, Miami and New Orleans. Lower-lying areas (17 percent of Bangladesh, huge swaths of the Nile Delta) would become completely uninhabitable, resulting in tens of millions of refugees. As the ice makes its way to the sea, weather patterns will likely be disrupted by the influx of cold, fresh water into the Gulf Stream, radically altering Europe's climate.

One afternoon, Zwally says, "The question you haven't asked me that I always get asked is 'Is it alarming?' "

Before I can say OK, I'll bite, Zwally says, "Yes. It is alarming."

"I am in general an optimist," Steffen tells me later. "But I see changes going so fast, it's sometimes hard to — we could not predict it."

Steffen's father, Ernst, was one of the top men's clothing designers for Pierre Cardin. (The grad students discovered this fact last year when one of the tents ripped and Steffen produced a massive sewing kit.) Steffen briefly considered becoming an actor, but was clearly more suited to fieldwork. He collects first-edition accounts of polar exploration, and, in a telling detail, says his favorite explorer is Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian scientist who in 1888 crossed the entire Greenland ice sheet on skis and sail-rigged sleds. Steffen clearly relishes his own image as a scientist-adventurer, as many of his stories attest.

Once, he brought a skinned, decapitated polar-bear head to his kids' grade-school classroom on parents' day; all of the other children immediately burst into tears. ("I thought, 'Oh, this was a mistake,' " says Steffen.) The polar bear had been menacing his camp in the Canadian Arctic until some Inuit hunters volunteered to kill it. There's another story about him and his wife-to-be crossing Afghanistan on horseback — it was the Seventies, and they were making their way along the hippie trail — when the Soviets invaded. They caught the first flight out, ending up in Tehran, where, as they settled into their hotel, they heard more gunfire, and soon realized the shah was being overthrown. Another time, back in the Canadian Arctic, Steffen's snowmobile triggered a miniature avalanche. He spent 18 hours in subzero weather with a dangling, completely dislocated jaw and a bone sticking out of his lower leg. Before his rescue, he wrote a goodbye letter to his future wife in his field notebook. He still hasn't shown her the letter, though he keeps a copy in his current field notebook, just in case.

When the talk turns to his upcoming moulin expedition, however, Steffen becomes unusually serious. The site is nearly two hours from Swiss Camp by snowmobile. "I don't want anyone driving off-track," he tells the group before they set out. "There are multiple moulins in a row in this area. It is not secure. If you stand on another moulin, it can go down."

Considering the overall movement of the ice sheet, everyone but Steffen seems skeptical about the GPS map being very accurate when it comes to the moulin's location. The plan is for Steffen to scout around on the ice sheet and try to locate the hole.

If the moulin is covered in snow and the GPS mapping spotty, I wonder how he will ever find the hole. "Aside from falling through?" Sampson asks. "I don't know." After a pause, he adds, "Secretly? I think he's hoping to fall through."

Steffen is not the only person in Greenland with a professional curiosity about cracks in the ice. Alcoa, the U.S. aluminum giant, is on track to build an enormous aluminum smelter in southwest Greenland. Aluminum smelting is one of the least energy-efficient of industrial activities; in 2006, Alcoa was fined $9.2 million for nearly 2,000 environmental violations in the United States. The Greenland plant, though, is being touted as "green" because it will be hydroelectric — powered by glacial meltwater — though Alcoa's smelters emit 6.1 million pounds of air pollution annually. Like the oil companies, Alcoa is reaping the benefits of the warmer climate its own emissions helped to create.

Though cryolite, used to make aluminum, has been mined by Danish companies since the 19th century, Greenland has never seen anything like the current boom. A poster in Greenland's main airport, in Kangerlussuaq, touts logistics connections "for oil, gas and mineral projects in Greenland," including "local labour," "contract negotiation" and "expediting." To stoke average Greenlanders' excitement about all the potential riches buried right under their rapidly melting front yards, the government sponsors an amateur mineral hunt called Ujarassiorit, Greenlandic for — apparently this is a real word — "go and look for rocks." Canada's True North recently discovered a 440-carat ruby, the largest ever found in North America, in southwestern Greenland. And later this year, Britain's Angus & Ross plans to reopen the Black Angel lead-and-zinc mine, set in the side of a cliff. The mine closed in 1990, but, as Angus & Ross chief operating officer Andrew Zemek told a zinc seminar in 2007, more exposed rock means geologists can "drill more holes than they could before." Zemek also pronounced Greenland "grossly underexplored."

Though many Greenlanders welcome economic development, critics like the University of Greenland economist Birger Poppel warn about compounding an already existing environmental catastrophe. He points out that fish from a fjord near the Black Angel mine are inedible. As for oil, because of the sensitivity of Arctic extraction and the higher risk of accidents, Tarjei Haaland of Greenpeace Denmark has called the prospect of drilling "insane."

Of all the recent finds, one of the higher-profile has been Vancouver-based Hudson Resources' discovery of a 2.4-carat diamond in a region near Kangerlussuaq called Garnet Lake. Hudson, founded eight years ago, came up with the name "Garnet Lake" as part of a very public campaign to promote its future mine and, presumably, to boost stock prices. (Garnets are "indicator minerals" for diamonds — meaning if you find one, there's a good chance the other is nearby.)

Karen Hanghøj, the project manager, agrees to give me a tour of the site. Hanghøj is a geologist. She grew up in Denmark but has lived for years in New York and Cape Cod, working mostly in academia: as a research scientist at Columbia University and as a guest investigator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She looks extremely Nordic (blond hair, blue eyes) and today is dressed like a backpacker: Gore-Tex jacket, khaki pants, hiking boots, a pink hat with flower-shaped tassels. As our helicopter takes off from the Kangerlussuaq airport, she nods at a large military plane and says, "That's American," then mutters, "They're probably waterboarding someone back there."

Hudson Resources has staked out 2,500 square kilometers — about twice the size of Los Angeles — surrounding Paradise Valley, a protected national preserve. As the helicopter crests a mountain bordering the valley, the terrain plummets in breathtaking fashion. From the air, it looks as majestic as the Grand Canyon. Our pilot spots a herd of wild musk oxen and swoops low, prompting them to scatter. They look like prehistoric buffalo.

One of the most noteworthy quirks of mineral extraction in Greenland is the fact that there is no private land in the country. As per Inuit tradition, all land is considered public; people own homes and other buildings but must receive government permission to expand them. Any foreign mineral companies operating here make deals for extraction. To make Greenland an attractive place to do business, the government often grants companies willing to invest in exploration a staggering 100 percent right to any minerals discovered; Greenland takes its cut in taxes and through local spending requirements. "Some of us," notes Poppel dryly, "think this is too generous."

The mining camp, surrounded by snowcapped mountains, rests on a rocky patch of land next to Garnet Lake. Compared to Swiss Camp, the place feels like a room at the Bellagio. All tents are heated; the smallest is the size of Swiss Camp's kitchen tent. There is also a bathroom with running water, toilets, showers and a washer-dryer. We sit down to a lunch spread prepared by the camp's full-time cook that includes cod cheeks, kartoffelsalat (a Danish potato salad), two types of smoked fish and various cheeses and cold cuts.

"It's pretty comfortable here," Hanghøj acknowledges back in her office tent. A pile of New Yorker magazines sits on her desk. Nearby, a couple of junior geologists, also from Denmark, play chess while listening to AC/DC on a speaker-docked iPod. "There's a tradition for Danish geologists to work in Greenland," says Hanghøj, who has spent her past 12 summers in the country. "There's not much in Denmark unless you're interested in gravel."

After lunch, we walk over to the processing tent. To get there, we have to pick our way over piles of rocks. An excavator with a long crane arm is parked next to a quarrylike mound of rubble. Hanghøj points out a chunk of kimberlite, the black igneous rock that carries diamonds to the surface of the earth.

Inside a tent the size of a barn, sharply angled conveyor belts jut from an enormous machine; it looks like a prop factory for a movie that's set during the Industrial Revolution. The plant can process up to five tons of material an hour, crushing each rock sample several times. Diamonds are separated via devices like the grease table. (Diamonds are hydrophobic, so they will pass through water without getting "wet" and still stick to grease, unlike the other rock particles.) Rummaging around a cluttered table, Hanghøj finds a tiny diamond sample to show me. It's stored in a dirty spice jar. Dave Pickston, a Canadian consultant who has set up similar operations in Tanzania and China, wanders over. I ask what a fully operational mine on this site would look like. He chuckles and says, "We'd be processing 100 tons an hour instead of five. This building would be 20 times the size it is now."

Before my visit to the camp, I spoke with Hudson president James Tuer, who was enthusiastic about the public-relations benefits of operating in such an untouched space. "I think the marketing of a diamond coming out of Greenland would be fantastic," he told me excitedly. "Would you rather have a diamond coming from Greenland — with its connotation of ice and cold and pristine environment — or, say, Angola, an area of war and strife?" Tuer is right: Given the choice, consumers would surely not prefer oil from Middle Eastern despots, rubies from Myanmar (the world's largest producer), gold from Sierra Leone. But if climate change continues unabated, Greenland's newly uncovered riches will have a taint all their own, much like blood diamonds. It's just a question of when the bleeding takes place.

In the end, there is too much snow to get into the moulin.

To be less concise: After a harrowing two-hour ride out to the site, during which Steffen (with me on the back of his snowmobile) blatantly disobeys his own command by veering from the tracks in order to skirt a field of hummocks, we pull to a stop approximately 30 meters from the moulin. "Don't walk around. Just stay on the skidoo," he tells me. Then he and McGrath bind themselves together with rope and venture out in the direction of the moulin. From the safety of the snowmobile, gazing anxiously at two distant figures lashed together and wandering across a blank plane, I feel like I am watching an experimental silent film or a Samuel Beckett play. But after combing the site for 30 minutes, Steffen every so often consulting his GPS or crouching to poke the snow with his ice pick (known in the field, incidentally, as a Trotsky), they return, disappointed. The moulin is buried by too much snow. Steffen will have to return later with radar and measure the moulin that way.

Greenland has been called a canary in a coal mine for global warming so often that it's become a cliché. (Last year, Zwally informed the Associated Press that the canary was dead.) Still, if you accept the basic truth of the statement, then it's also true that what's happening in Greenland is a leading indicator of our response to climate change. Here is a country where, short of people actually bursting into flames, the physical manifestations of warming could not be more overt. And yet our reaction has been predictably depressing. The first to arrive have not been paramedics but estate lawyers, organ harvesters, men with pliers checking the corpse's mouth for gold fillings.

The obligatory hopeful ending called for by the conventions of global-warming reportage has always struck me as suspicious, more like wishful thinking. Still, the scientists at Swiss Camp insist there's time to save ourselves. "It's possible to have serious mitigation of climate change with minimal economic impact," Zwally says. "The thing we're missing right now is the will to do it." But it's the second half of Zwally's formulation that points to the real inconvenient truth: the deep unlikelihood of humans putting aside immediate self-interest in favor of a greater good.

Greenland, though: You should really see it while you still can. The country remains one of the least hospitable places on the planet, as stark a reminder of nature's utter indifference to human life as ever. Ironically, that very quality has spared the country a proper colonial ravishing. But now the pros are coming. Chevron and ExxonMobil are already scouting locations in Disko Bay.

Back in Ilulissat, the Arctic summit concluded with the participants promising to work toward an "orderly settlement" of their claims through existing treaties. Skeptics might wonder if the sudden show of cooperative spirit was inspired by fear of the alternative: calls for a ban on Arctic drilling similar to the laws already in place in Antarctica. To cap his stay, John Negroponte, U.S. deputy secretary of state, posed for pictures with his fellow diplomats on the deck of a boat called the Smilla. (Negroponte was the one wearing the cowboy hat.) The name Smilla comes from the novel Smilla's Sense of Snow, the plot of which hangs on a sinister Danish mining corporation stealing a meteorite from Greenland. Smilla also relates a Norse myth about the end of the world, which involves extreme cold, the wolf Skoll devouring the sun and, finally, darkness. This changed, Smilla points out, when Christian missionaries convinced the Greenlanders that hell would actually be very hot. A tough sell to the Northerners — heat bad? — but no, the priests insisted: The world would end in fire.

On my own last day in Ilulissat, I took a long walk out to the mouth of the icefjord, where the icebergs cluster before calving off into Disko Bay. It looks like Monument Valley turned to salt, the ice packed so tight there's no sign of movement or even water. The only thing moving, actually, is a flock of birds. Normally, I'd never just sit and watch a bird fly all the way to the horizon. But here, probably because of the absence of any other motion, I do. One of the birds gets farther and farther away, then arcs to the side, until it gets so small, I'm only seeing the movement of its wings, and it becomes a blinking dot. Then I blink, and it's gone.

[From Issue 1156-1157 — July 10, 2008]

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