It’s been an unbelievable 5 days for Gordon and me. We arrived at the mouth of Kangerdlugssuaq fjord early Monday morning, at which time Gordon and Hughie did a quick fly-over of the glacier. To our surprise, the glacier has changed dramatically since the 2001 satellite image we have been relying on. First of all, it has retreated ~5 km since 2001. Coordinates that we had chosen for our GPS stakes are now well into the water. In addition, there was stranded ice on the ridge walls, ~200’ above the current surface. Kangerdlugssuaq has thinned and retreated much farther than we anticipated.
To document these changes, we ended up doing a much more extensive grid of GPS stakes than we had at any of the other glaciers. We put out 12 poles, and surveyed most of them 4 times (at the other glaciers our grids consisted of 5 poles, surveyed twice). Tuesday night, after a full day of fieldwork, I did some quick calculations of the glacier speed and, to my astonishment, found it was moving 14 km/yr. This is almost triple the speed it was moving in 1996 (6 km/yr). Gordon and I just about fell off our chairs.
We couldn’t believe our results at first. The terminus of Kangerdlugssuaq has been stable since 1962, so we expected the velocity to be relatively consistent as well. Apparently, large changes have taken place since 2001, causing extreme thinning, retreat, and acceleration. Now Kangerdlugssuaq rivals Jakobshaven as the fastest glacier in the world. 14 km/yr. That’s roughly 40 m/day!! In fact, our videographer on board filmed the glacier from his tripod for 2 full hours, and you can actually watch it move!! It’s truly unbelievable.
After Gordon and I checked and rechecked our results, we alerted the crew to our findings and everyone kicked into gear. People were writing press releases, taking pictures, emailing reporters and giving TV and radio interviews. The whole event was totally foreign to us. As scientists, we don’t go about advertising our results this way, but it was very effective – being broadcast in Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Greenland that night.
As for Gordon and me, we plan on heading home tomorrow morning. We have had a terrific trip – in terms of science, scenery, adventure and friendship. Although sad to leave the ship, we are eager to finalize our results and do more research in the lab. The crew was a tremendous help to us and we could not have done it without any of them. A special thanks to Hughie, our helicopter pilot, for his safe landings on spires and straddling crevasses in the middle of one of the fastest glaciers in the world.