Field Notes from Greenland: A Glacier Calves

The glacier before it calved, on August 20, 2014. © Mia Bennett.
The glacier before it calved, on August 20, 2014. © Mia Bennett.

The glacier after it calved. August 22, 2014. © Mia Bennett.
The glacier after it calved, on August 22, 2014. © Mia Bennett.

Part of Russell Glacier just east of the road from Kangerlussuaq up to the ice sheet collapsed into the river within the past two days. We drove by the ice sheet around 2:00 pm on Thursday, August 21, and just a few icebergs were floating in the river below the glacier front. My colleague noticed that the glacier looked ready to calve, as it was overhanging. We camped further up the road for a night to do some fieldwork on the proglacial rivers (the ones coming right off the ice sheet) – but perhaps we should have set up our tents at the campsite in front of the glacier to witness what must have been a dramatic event.

The next day, on Friday, August 22, we drove back down the road to Kanger around 7:00 pm, about 29 hours later. By that time, the glacier had calved, creating an ice field below. In several Inuit languages, including Greenlandic, they call this calved ice uukkarnit. Huge, blue-white chunks were floating in the river, some more precariously than others. Smaller pieces were swirling in the currents, some getting stuck in an eddy and others washing up on the sandy riverbank. Some pieces were frosty white, while others had lines running through them – signs that they had melted and then refrozen at some point in their existence on the ice sheet. During the collapse, the force of the ice chunks jettisoning into the river must have caused a huge wave, as the water line went back a significant ways on the riverbank.

Of course, this calving event is minor compared to the enormous “ice islands” several times the size of Manhattan that calved off the Petermann Glacier in northwest Greenland in 2010 and 2012In English, we sometimes say things “move at a glacial pace,” but ice calving – and climate change – bring a whole new speed to that turn of phrase.

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To check out a Photosynth I made of the calved glacier, click here.

 

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