A World of Drifting Ice

Ilulissat Icefjord in western Greenland offers a unique view of a scenic landscape that demonstrates active glaciological processes, where majestic icebergs calve into the fjord and out to sea.
This article appeared in Vol. 13, No. 5 - 2016


Huskies are important inhabitants of the societies in northern Greenland and are seen everywhere. (Source: Morten Smelror)

A shining metallic plate at the entrance of the wooden path leading down to the fjord cries out for our attention: 

“You are now entering the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ilulissat Icefjord”. 

And what an entrance! 

Fast-Moving Glacier 

Ilulissat Icefjord gives us a unique view into a beautiful landscape where glaciological processes can be seen actively at work, as a constant stream of majestic icebergs calve from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier into Kangia fjord and on out to sea at Disko Bay. On the path leading to a scenic viewpoint we pass an interesting archaeological site at Sermeriut, with remains of the turf huts from the Thule culture. Also nearby there is evidence of middens from the Saqaaq culture, the first people to settle in the Ilulissat area some 4,400 years ago. 

Map of the Ilulissat Icefjord World Heritage Site. (Source: GEUS) Sermeq Kujalleq is 3-6 km wide and is one of the fastest-moving and most productive glaciers in Greenland. It travels at an average speed of more than 40m in 24 hours and produces around 46 km³ of icebergs a year; in fact, about 10% of all ice calving from the Greenland Inland Ice comes from this glacier. Drifting icebergs fill up the bay in front of Ilulissat, the third largest town in Greenland, which has a population of 4,000 people - and many more dogs. 

The largest icebergs calved by the glacier are about 1.5 km³ and can rise more than 100m above the sea surface. These giants appear as moving walls stranded at a submarine threshold at the mouth of the fjord. Standing on the hills outside the town we get a close view of the calving glacier front and the icebergs. Knowing that the bulk of the numerous large icebergs are hidden beneath the sea surface, we can begin to picture the enormous ice masses on the move. 

This fast-moving glacial stream calving into a fjord already full of icebergs is a special and very beautiful phenomenon. In 2004, Ilulissat Icefjord was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List as one of the world’s most important cultural monuments and natural landscapes. The protected area covers around 4,024 km² and consists of land, lakes, glaciers and Kangia fjord. As with all UNESCO sites in the world, the Ilulissat Icefjord is protected and preserved for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations. 

Since its acceptance as a World Heritage Site, the number of tourists visiting Ilulissat Icefjord has increased significantly. Tourism has more than doubled in just 10 years, and the area has become the prime tourist attraction in Greenland. 

  • Ilulissat is the third largest town in Greenland, with around 4000 people. In the background is the towns Zion Church. (Source: Morten Smelror)

  • Precambrian gneisses exposed in front of drifting ice-bergs outside the town Ilulissat. (Source: Morten Smelror)

  • The scenic Kangia at Ilulissat Icefjord is filled with drifting ice-bergs derived from the glacier Sermeq Kujalleq. (Source: Morten Smelror)

Polished Rock and Retreating Ice 

About 80% of Greenland has a permanent ice cover, but on the western coasts the remains of the Precambrian Shield are widely exposed. The bedrock around the Ilulissat Icefjord consists mainly of pale grey and folded gneisses and granites, with some mica schists and dark basic rocks. Further south, in Isua, north-east of Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, some of the world’s oldest rocks are found. These are 3.8 billion-year-old metamorphic rocks which contain some of the earliest signs of life on Earth. 

The bedrock around the Ilulissat Icefjord, as seen here in an exposure above Ilulissat town harbour, consists mainly of pale grey and folded gneisses and granites, with some mica schists and dark basic rocks. (Source: Morten Smelror) The bedrock in the inner part of Disko Bay consists of rocks 2.5 and 1.8–1.6 billion years old, the remains of a mountain range within the large North American continent, which in Precambrian times comprised both North America and Greenland. Later, sedimentary basins formed along the coasts of the Precambrian Shield, and today Cretaceous and Cenozoic deposits fill the Nuussuaq Basin in the Vaigat and Disko Bay area. 

Millions of years of moving ice have eroded and sculpted the rocks in the Icefjord area to a gentle landscape with low hills and polished bedrock surfaces. Today the Precambrian gneissic and granitic rocks in Ilulissat are extracted for construction purposes such as roads and buildings. 

Sermeq Kujalleq at Ilulissat Icefjord is one of the best-explored glaciers in the world. At the end of the Little Ice Age (around 1850) the front of the glacier was located in the outermost part of Kangia Fjord and since then it has retreated step by step. Within the last 15 years in particular the glacier front has withdrawn significantly and Sermeq Kujalleq has doubled its speed. Ten years ago the glacier front was a floating tongue in the fjord, while today it is mainly land-based. During these years the size of the icebergs has also significantly diminished. 

The ice front retreat is caused by rising temperatures causing increasing amounts of meltwater to percolate from the surface of the Inland Ice to the bottom of the glacier. The melt-water reduces the frictional resistance in the ice, causing the ice to flow at a higher speed. In addition, intrusions of warm oceanic water under the calving glacier have encouraged an increased retreat of the floating glacier front. 

  • Since 1850 the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier front has retreated from the open water in the mouth of the fjord back to the shoreline in the inner bay. (Source: GEUS)

True Heaven and Dramatic Overturns 

The high velocity of the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier comes from the fact that a very large drainage area of the Inland Ice is concentrated into the narrow stream that runs deep under the glacier. During the Ice Ages the forerunner of the glacier filled the Icefjord and eroded it to a depth of about 1,000m, the deepest part being between the present day glacier front at the inner shores of the fjord and the submarine threshold (the iceberg bank) at the mouth of the fjord in the west, where the water depth is 200-225m. It is here that most of the larger icebergs run aground. 

The glacial erosion brings a constant supply of nutrients into the fjord and forms the basis for a rich marine life, which through the ages has been the foundation for the settlements of fishermen and hunters around the fjord. No wonder that the native Inuits look upon the sea as the ‘true heaven’. When you die you go to the food-rich sea for eternity, not to the ‘barren heaven’. 

And sometimes the distance to ‘heaven’ may not be very far. When large icebergs overturn in Disko Bay they create major waves that can be dangerous to boats in the bay and people on the coast. At Sermeriut tourists have been inundated by such waves. 

  • The characteristic igloos outside Hotel Arctic in Ilulissat offer a unique view of the majestic Icefjord. (Source: Morten Smelror)

  • The tons of nutrients brought into Kangia by the eroding glaciers provide good food supply for the marine ecosystems in the Ilulissat Icefjord area. The northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), fulmar is one of the common seabirds in the area. (Source: Morten Smelror)

  • Hunting for musk-ox is popular on Greenland and musk-ox skin, wool and meat provide important income. (Source: Morten Smelror)

A Room with a View 

The beautiful and majestic icebergs that fill the Kangia Icefjord and strand on the ice bank south-west of Ilullisat form the most eye-catching of all the geo-touristic attractions in the area. The shifting light creates a magic setting and a room with a view over the fjord cannot be overrated here. Igloos made of alumina and supplied with flat-screens may not sound particularly exotic. But again, the unique and beautiful setting, with magic, fluctuating light under the midnight sun, will make a night in the igloos for rent at Hotel Arctic Ilulissat a memorable investment.

If you want a somewhat larger view of the Kangia Icefjord and Sermeq Kujalleq glacier you can charter an aeroplane or helicopter flight to take you for a sightseeing trip around the World Heritage area lasting for 30 minutes or an hour. And if you fancy a closer look, and want to experience some of the struggle the pioneering explorers of this large area went through, you can participate in one of the two- to ten-day trips on foot, skis or by dog-sledge that are offered by adventure companies in Ilulissat. For those who prefer a trip on the fjord to sail among drifting icebergs, there are also several alternatives to choose from. 

For scientists, adventurers or just ordinary tourists, the UNESCO World Heritage Site Ilulissat Icefjord offers a unique, unmissable experience. 


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