The Ilulissat Ice Fjord

Taking their place alongside the Ice Fjord’s beautiful and dangerous icebergs and diving humpback whales, government leaders and climate experts flock to this area to take the pulse of global climatic changes.

By academic principal, Naja Holm, Environment and Nature Agency, Greenland

When you visit the Ilulissat Ice Fjord, you can easily become taken aback by the exquisitely beautiful landscape you find there. For a good many years now, people have been studying the movement of the glacial ice and it is also here that climate changes can be observed at close range.

The glacier and the resulting icebergs are natural phenomena that we can see in the Ice Fjord on a scale and with a regularity that are not found anywhere else in the world.

The Ilulissat Ice Fjord, known in the Greenlandic language as Kangia, is characterized by the large icebergs that originate from the glacier, Sermeq Kujalleq. The glacier is located 55 km inside the Ice Fjord and serves as the drainage outlet for the inland’s ice sheet. It is the most active glacier in the northern hemisphere and produces approximately 46 km3 of ice every year.

The ice is pushed out into the Ice Fjord, where it breaks up into large chunks and plunges toward the open sea with a thunderous crash. Icebergs are pressed through the fjord and they flow out toward the Disko Bay and then even further out. The largest icebergs become stranded in the mouth of the Ice Fjord on the iceberg-bank at the fjord’s threshold. The ice from the glacier flows at an extremely high velocity of 40 meters per day out toward the mouth of the Ice Fjord.

Research about the Ice Fjord has been going on for the past 250 years

The tip of the iceberg
The well-known saying, “the tip of the iceberg,” which signifies that only a small portion of something far more substantial can currently be seen, could very well have originated from Greenland, where only one tenth of the icebergs actually protrude above the surface of the sea.

The ice’s white color is due to the bubbles. Sometimes the icebergs have green and blue bands, which are pure ice. When the icebergs are carrying a load of stones and gravel, which the ice has scraped from the soil’s surface (moraine material), then the iceberg becomes weighted down and only a small portion of it juts out over the surface of the sea.

The moving ice

Icebergs from the Ice Fjord drift out to the open ocean. Some of them drift north around Disko Island (Qeqertarsuaq) and merge into the West Greenland Current, which carries them farther north toward the Canadian coast. There, they are caught up in the two southward moving streams, the Baffin Current and the Labrador Current. In some cases, they migrate as far south as 40° North Latitude (reaching Bermuda) before they melt.

Icebergs from the Ice Fjord have always posed a grave danger for nautical traffic in the North Atlantic. It is very likely that the ocean liner, the Titanic, collided with one of the icebergs from here on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic in 1912.

Climate research on a grand scale

The glacier brook in the Ice Fjord is the most studied glacier brook in the world. Research about the Ice Fjord has been going on for the past 250 years. These investigations have provided us with knowledge about climate changes because the inland ice cap and consequently the glacier are more sensitive to climate changes than is, for example, the ice sheet in Antarctica.

In 1851, the Danish geographer, Dr. Hinrich Johannes Rink, plotted out the glacier’s boundaries. Since that time, the glacier has advanced and receded during, respectively, colder and warmer periods. The glacial front is now situated on land because it has receded so far that it no longer breaks into pieces in the water.

The climate changes entail that the life conditions for all living things – animals, plants and people – are undergoing change. Scientists cannot say with certainty why the rapid climate changes are occurring or whether the changes are man-made. However, the latest research suggests that it has much to do with warm ocean currents, which cause the glacier to melt from below.

The ice flows at an extremely high velocity of 40 meters per day out toward the mouth of the Ice Fjord

Almost as many dogs as people
At the mouth of the Ice Fjord lies the town of Ilulissat. “Ilulissat,” in the Greenlandic language, means “icebergs.” Ilulissat is Greenland’s third largest city, with around 5,000 inhabitants. The city’s residents, taken together, have approximately 3,500 sled dogs in their care.

There is a great deal of wildlife in the Ice Fjord. This is due to the fact that the water is oxygenated by the constant movement inside the ocean. For this reason, there are lots and lots of plankton and other tiny animals that are consumed by fish and whales.

Greenland halibut is an important catch at the fisheries in Ilulissat. The fishermen catch these fish on long lines cast from small dinghies. You can also see humpback whales in the Ice Fjord as they submerge and display their large, wonderful tails.

Interesting finds have been made at the Ice Fjord. Archaeological excavations conducted in Sermermiut have borne out that Greenland has, in fact, been inhabited for 4,400 years, rather than 3,000, as was previously maintained. Today, special efforts are being made to protect the Sermermiut region, especially in the form of regulations stipulating that people can only move about on marked paths, in order to avoid wear and tear on the terrain.

Greenland has been inhabited for 4,400 years

Preserving the Ice Fjord
In 2004, Ilulissat was designated a World Heritage area. The motivation for doing this was that the Ice Fjord is an outstanding natural phenomenon and a fine example of a stage in the Earth’s historical development from the most recent Ice Age’s glaciation during the Quaternary period.

At the same time, the glacier brook here is one of the most rapidly moving and most active in the world. The glacier has been the object of study for more than 250 years. On account of this glacier’s relatively convenient accessibility, studies made here have increased our knowledge about glaciers, climate changes, the icebergs’ movements and geological processes.

Greenland is proud that the Ice Fjord has been singled out as a World Heritage site and people here are making an active effort to preserve the merits in the area. Greenland’s Home Rule has now hammered out a statutory instrument that contains a set of rules designed to protect these merits. For example, erecting buildings is not allowed. Nor is it permitted to drive in cars, snowmobiles or snow scooters in the area. And large ships may not sail into the Ice Fjord any longer, either.

Similarly, in 2009, the Greenlandic Home Rule worked up, in collaboration with Qaasuitsup Kommunia, a management plan that contains a series of measures conceived for safeguarding the area’s merits. One such measure, for example, stipulates that flight paths for helicopters flying in toward the Ice Fjord have been changed. Now they will have to fly in a curve around the city and not too low when moving in over the fjord, so that any unnecessary disturbance to the animals and the people can be avoided.

Locally, an effort is also being made to preserve the values in the area. The municipality has set up a special “Ice Fjord Office” that is working together with Greenland’s Home Rule around the administrative supervision of the area. The municipality has also employed a park ranger, who is expected to keep a watch on and to provide information about the area.

- the old settlement at the Ice Fjord, Sermermiut, has been inhabited in different periods over a lapse of 4,400 years

- the city of Ilulissat (aka Jakobshavn) was founded in 1742 by Jakob Severin, a

Danish merchant

- Ilulissat is the largest town in the world’s largest municipality: Qaasuitsup Kommunia

- the Ice Fjord is visited every year by approximately 35,000 tourists

- Fridtjof Nansen was the first person to ski all the way across the inland ice sheet

Sidst opdateret: 20.05.2010
Knud Rasmussen

The famous Greenlandic polar explorer and anthropologist, Knud Rasmussen, was born in Ilulissat in 1879 to a Greenlandic mother and a Danish father. He spoke both Greenlandic and Danish and understood both cultures. At the age of twelve, he was sent by himself to Denmark, where he also earned his baccalaureate.

Rasmussen went on long sled journeys in Greenland and he also travelled to Canada and Alaska, where he collected stories and items that served to substantiate that not only were there linguistic similarities between the language spoken by Greenlanders and the languages spoken by the Inuit peoples in Alaska and Canada but also that these people all shared a worldview characterized by mutually opposing terms like summer/winter, male/female and light/dark.

Knud Rasmussen is remembered both in Greenland and Denmark as a cultural translator and bridge-builder between the two peoples. In the first years of his life, he was raised in Ilulissat’s red-colored rectory, which has now been turned into a museum.

More about Ilulissat

- See DR’s broadcast about Ilulissat, with Julie Berthelsen the host
- See the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland - GEUS’s website about Ilulissat

There is a Greenlandic myth about the creation of the sun and the moon, a myth that is connected to the Ice Fjord.

The myth tells that a brother had fallen in love with his sister; both the brother and the sister lived at the Ice Fjord. The sister fled from the place and became the sun, while the brother pursued her and turned into the moon. Ever since this incident, the moon has been following the sun.

Jørgen Brønlund’s diary

Jørgen Brønlund, who took part in Mylius-Erichsen’s Denmark expedition in 1906-08, was born in Ilusissat.

Brønlund was an expert interpreter. Part of what he was assigned to do was to keep a travel diary about the expedition. Unfortunately, like the two other Polar explorers, Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen and Peter Høegh Hagen, Jørgen Brønlund perished of hunger and freezing. What he managed to put down in the expedition diary, however, can be seen today at the Royal Library in Copenhagen.