First-hand scientific data of the fast-vanishing Petermann Glacier in Greenland's remote North will soon be available, thanks to Greenpeace.
The organization set off on a three-month climate impacts expedition on June 23, just as a Manhattan-sized iceberg started hemorrhaging off the ancient Petermann mass.
The group, and its team of independent scientists, will document the disintegration of the world's northernmost glacier and conduct additional research on the accelerating polar melt.
"Travelling to Petermann Glacier is a rare opportunity to visit a remote, hard to reach location at the top of the world, and a chance to make observations usually well beyond the capabilities of conventional science," said Jason Box, a glacier expert at the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University and member of the Greenpeace expedition.
The Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, an old sealing vessel, sailed from Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. After barreling North along Greenland's West Coast, the 30-member crew reached the edge of the Petermann Glacier on June 29.
A time-lapse camera was installed on the ice to track the glacial smashup through slow-motion images.
The data should help shine a spotlight on Greenland, the world's ground zero of global warming, where melting glaciers contain enough ice to eventually raise sea levels around the world by as much as 23 feet.
"This is a chance to help us to better understand how Greenland's ice sheet and glaciers react to climate change, as well as the implications for global sea level rise," Box said.
The expedition is also a chance to publicize the specter of climate change before UN climate talks in Copenhagen in December, which must produce a successor treaty to the expiring Kyoto Protocol.
The Petermann Glacier is the Northern Hemisphere's biggest floating glacier and a sentinel of danger in a warming world.
From July 10 to July 24, 2008, a chunk of it half the size of Manhattan cracked off. That piece is now a floating monolith in Canadian waters. Before that, the last major losses of ice from the glacier occurred between 2000 and 2001.
In August, the Byrd Polar Research Center spotted more giant gashes in the glacier on satellite images, adding to evidence that the atrophy is indeed a sign of global warming, not normal glacier stress.
To get to Petermann Glacier, the Greenpeace team had to pass the Nares Strait, the body of water that divides northwest Greenland from Canada's Ellesmere Island. They were warned the chances of crossing were 50-50 due to seasonal floods of sea ice.
Instead, the group "encountered no ice worth talking about," Dave Walsh, who is onboard the Arctic Sunrise, wrote on the Greenpeace blog.
... the route is usually choked with sea ice well into the summer, with most icebreakers only making the passage in August. I expected to fall asleep at night listening to ice clunking and grazing along the hull of the ship.
It wasn't to be, however – we encountered no ice worth talking about.
For reasons that are unclear – but may be related to warming sea temperatures and high winds – the sea ice in Nares Strait never 'consolidated' last winter, for the first in 32 years of records. This means that the ice never really properly fused together, and remained thin. The last time there was any proper sea ice Nares Strait was March 2008. While we can't say what exactly is causing this – we can certainly say that it's evidence of a climate that is changing.
On top of covering the Petermann Glacier's collapse, scientists will be on Greenland's east coast to research the effects of warm sub-tropical waters of the island's glaciers. The team will then conduct research in the melting pack ice north of the island of Svalbard.
According to a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the Greenland melt is accelerating more rapidly and dangerously. Ice is now disappearing at a rate of 7 percent a year. If that continues, sea levels off the northeast U.S. coast could rise this century by 12 to 20 inches more than other coastal areas this century.
This is a far bleaker assessment than previous research.
Other new evidence corroborates that similar trends are being observed all over the planet.
Switzerland's glaciers are shrinking faster than ever, a new study by the Swiss university ETH found. The glaciers declined 12 percent over the past decade, melting at their swiftest rate in 150 years due to rising temperatures and lighter snowfalls.
Bolivia's 18,000-year-old Chacaltaya Glacier – once the highest ski resort on Earth – disappeared entirely this year. Meanwhile, NASA's latest research expedition in South America revealed that masses of ice in the Patagonia are also melting in larger proportions and in much higher alpine zones than in any other part of the world.
In the Himalayas, scientists in Nepal have embarked on the first field studies of glacial lakes, out of fear they are now swelling dangerously from climate changes.
Evidence of the planet's glacial decline are probably best captured by the latest figures from the University of Zurich's World Glacier Monitoring Service: The rate of ice loss from the Earth's glaciers in 2007 was twice as fast as a decade ago.
All of this data underscores the rapidity of changes taking place in the Arctic, and the whole world. It also highlights an important reason for the Greenpeace expedition. As Iris Menn, a marine expert at Greenpeace Germany, said:
"One of the last virtually untouched areas of the world is most affected by climate change. The ice melt exceeds all previous climate change scenarios.
"This is precisely why [the Greenpeace expedition] is needed, to collect current data in the Arctic. Only then can we improve the predictive power of global climate models."