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'A place unlike almost anywhere else in the world'

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By Mark Robinson
Meteorologist
@StormhunterTWN
Monday, December 9, 2013, 1:24 PM

Ice on a scale like nothing I’d ever seen rose above the ship. I stood on the top deck and stared upwards as we made our way slowly through an icefield that almost completely surrounded us. The captain was moving slowly and very carefully between icebergs that looked like mountains that had been half submerged and then frozen into place. Titanic white walls stretched far above us and bright sunlight shimmered off crystals that lay embedded in the snow. The dark blue, almost black water swirled around the base of the walls, contrasting with the sheer blankness of the icebergs. 

This was a place unlike almost anywhere else in the world. The Jakobshavn glacier is one of the fastest moving on the planet and sheds over 35 billion tonnes of ice every year. The glacier is also responsible for approximately 10% of all Greenland icebergs and drains about 7% of the icecap. The icebergs that calve off the glacier are immense; some of them over a kilometre tall. However, given that the bulk of any iceberg is below the waterline, none of them stick much more than a few hundred metres above the water. 

The Jakoshavn glacier has retreated approximately 40 km back from the mouth of the fjord and that’s left an interesting geological feature. About 300 metres down at the bottom of the harbour lies a massive moraine, specifically a terminal one. The moraine rises up from the bottom and acts as barrier to the icebergs moving down the fjord. Their massive bulk below the water means that the keels of the truly enormous ones slam into the gravel moraine far below the water and the icebergs halt in their journey out to sea. There they will remain until either tidal forces move them over the barrier or they break up enough to be able to continue.

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I could see the results of this unique combination of earth and ice all around me. The gigantic icebergs seemed solid as rock, fixed in place and unmoving as the earth. Small ships that looked like fishing boats moved around the massive ice islands as if they were no big deal. I could see the people on the boats barely glancing around at the awesome landscape that they sailed through, but I guess that if you have one of the most incredible sights on earth outside your front door everyday, you eventually just, well, get used to it. 

It was so new to me that I couldn’t help just staring out over the ice field even to the point that Boris called everyone down to the boats for an up close and personal encounter with the icy behemoths. I ended up running down six flights of stairs in an awful hurry to make it to the filming Zodiac, but I did make it. I jammed overy bit of filming gear I had into the rubber boat and we headed out towards the massive ‘bergs. 

Within a few minutes we encountered our first ice and it was far smaller than what was on all around us. As the icebergs shifted and slowly melted, chunks of ice would calve off and end up in the water. Often they would break up even further and end up as a soupy mix of small ice chunks not much bigger than what you might find in an industrial freezer or even as small as the icecubes in your own freezer. But unlike human created ice, these glacial mini bits were bubbling and popping to the point I felt like I was in the middle of the world’s biggest bowl of Rice Krispies. The popping and fizzing was the escaping gases of ancient earth atmosphere bubbling out of the melting ice. I was once again in the midst of air that had last been out in the atmosphere when mammoths walked the earth.

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Ok, I might have been breathing mammoth farts. It was hard to tell. 

We passed through the field of icy bits and Jeff began maneuvering us closer to one of the biggest icebergs I have ever seen. There was no sense of how big the chunk of glacier was until one of the other Zodiacs got between us and it and suddenly the shear scale of the ice was overwhelming. This was an iceberg that dwarfed any building in downtown Toronto. My mother works at First Canada Place on the eastern side of the city and it’s one of the biggest buildings in the core. I’ve been on the top floor and when I looked down at the street far below, I remember swaying on my feet just because the ground felt so far away and I felt so small. This iceberg could have swallowed that building and had room for a few more. The ice reminded me how small we humans really are. Despite our overall effect on the planet there were still forces out there that we are utterly humbled by. And this was the result of some of them. 

We fired off so many pictures and so much film I kind of lost track of what we were doing. I tried to convey my feelings about what I was seeing to camera and I got frustrated quickly as it was so hard to try and get across the true awe that these bergs had created. It’s one thing to see something like this on TV and another totally to be there. 

I might have been freaking out, but the birds wheeling around the ice cliffs seemed to take it all in stride. They turned, glided, and soared on the winds that blew around the massive blocks. As we slowly moved past the glacier, the sunlight caught the icy crags on the top and turned the berg into a winter palace, turrets of white ice sparkled between aquamarine blue minarets. An honour guard of brilliant white gulls swooped among them, watching for piscine enemies to threaten the kingdom from below. When a fish was spotted, it was scooped up and swallowed within moments of the long drop to the water that the wary birds completed.

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A less fantastical explanation is that the various bird species that made their home around and on the icebergs of the harbour used the slowly melting islands as hunting grounds. As the icebergs dug into the harbour bottom far below, they stirred up nutrients and small organisms that were fed upon by fish. In turn, the birds would hunt the fish and so on up the food web. It’s an ecosystem driven by constant disruption and change as the ice ebbs and flows through the fjord and harbour. 

We finally finished with the icebergs out on the water and we headed back from some breakfast. The journey into the ice was not over yet.We still had to see the Icefjord from the land and that would lead to one of the most incredible places I have ever seen on this planet.

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